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What is a Pro Se Plaintiff?

By Daphne Mallory
Updated Jan 25, 2024
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In Latin, pro se means for oneself. A pro se plaintiff is one who commences a civil legal matter and represents himself or herself in court without an attorney. Upon filing of a pro se complaint, a judge may ask whether the plaintiff would like legal representation and even imply that it would be in the plaintiff’s best interest to do so. Local laws don’t often prohibit self representation in court, though, and a plaintiff has a right to pursue a case alone. A pro se plaintiff may opt to hire a lawyer as a consultant behind the scenes for guidance and to answer tough legal questions as the case progresses.

A judge will often not allow a plaintiff to proceed in a lawsuit pro se without meeting certain requirements. It’s important to establish that a plaintiff is mentally capable of legally representing herself. Mental capability often has nothing to do with intelligence, but instead the ability to understand the proceedings and to be in the right frame of mind. If a plaintiff cannot prove that, she or he will be asked to proceed only with the help of an attorney. Physical capability is often a secondary requirement for a pro se plaintiff, which means that the plaintiff is not impaired in such a way that he or she cannot appear in court or effectively represent himself or herself while there.

Pro se plaintiffs may have to pay sanctions in court as well as attorney fees. A sanction is a fine that a judge may impose for violation of court rules or etiquette, such as improper filings or failure to file legal documents. A plaintiff who loses the case may also be required to pay the defendant’s legal fees. The costs must often be directly related to court costs and services, as well as reasonable attorney fees. Many courts have ruled that a pro se plaintiff cannot collect attorney fees after winning a case, even if the plaintiff is a licensed attorney.

In many cases, judges are tolerant of pro se litigants, especially when the defendant is represented by counsel. One of the top reasons that plaintiffs choose to represent themselves is for economic reasons. Attorney fees are too cost prohibitive, and so the only option is to act on their own behalf. Judges are only tolerant to a certain extent, though, and often hold pro se plaintiffs to the same standard as a licensed attorney appearing in court. When plaintiffs do not hold themselves to these standards, judges may apply sanctions.

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Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Jan 15, 2015

@Melonlity -- There are alternatives for people who are strapped for cash. In my state, for example, there is a very good legal aid organization that is statewide and staffed by people who are passionate about what they do for a living.

Before making the choice to be a pro se plaintiff or pro se defendant, you might check with your local legal aid office. The quality of representation you get for free may surprise you.

And, by the way, those legal aid organizations exist to provide more access to the courts systems. They are often supported by taxes and money from lawyers (interest off of trust accounts, for example). Those are resources and they should be used.

By Melonlity — On Jan 14, 2015

@Soulfox -- You may have a point, but I do believe the legal system should be open to anyone. That includes even those who represent themselves. Keep in mind that legal fees are expensive and people can't always come up with them.

For those people, what choice is there but the pro se course of action? If they have a legitimate complaint but can't afford to pay an attorney to advance it, then they may find relief by being a pro se plaintiff.

By Soulfox — On Jan 13, 2015

Remember the old adage that suggests that a person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client? That is totally true. Heck, even lawyers hire someone to represent them in cases because they know the problems with being too emotionally involved in a case. I would caution all those would be pro se plaintiffs out there against jumping into court and getting in over their heads.

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