What exactly does it mean to act pro se in a legal proceeding?
Most legal dictionaries define the term “pro se” as someone who represents themself in a legal procedure without the aid of an attorney. It is an established tenet that you have the right to represent yourself in a court of law, however, many people do not understand that choosing to represent yourself means that the Court will expect you to follow the same rules and procedures that an attorney must follow. The Judge in your case may not do anything to give any appearance of being partial to either side and this includes giving legal advice and having contact with either party without the other being present. Generally, when you go into court, the Judge will give you much information about what may be wrong with whatever pleadings you filed. Listen carefully; if you do not understand what is being said at the time, you can take that information and see an attorney afterwards to get a better understanding of what was said.
Court staff may assist you with procedures only and very often there is a fine line between procedural information and legal advice. Staff cannot give legal advice. Procedural information includes such matters as where to obtain forms for some procedures, how to file a petition, answer requirements, service requirements on common procedures, how to get a default, how to file a motion, how to get a hearing, etc. Basically, questions must be taken individually and a judgment must be made on whether or not the question involves giving legal advice. If you are told that your question is legal advice, please accept that it is and don’t badger court employees to help you when they cannot. Filling out forms is definitely considered legal advice and you will need to seek the assistance of a licensed attorney if you have any questions regarding “what to put in the blanks.”
Rules of Court?
Judges are bound by the concept of “Stare Decisis” which is basically the idea that prior decisions must be honored and considered in any similar matter. Legal research can be very complex, but most law libraries will have a staff librarian that can show you basically how to find what you are looking for. Court procedures are defined and outlined by the Florida Supreme Court and are contained in a book called the Florida Rules of Court. This book contains rules and some examples of forms grouped together by the court to which they apply; in Florida there is a section for Juvenile Court, Criminal Court, Civil Court, and Family Law rules. If the other party files an objection to your pleading on procedural grounds or the judge signs an order denying your pleading because of a procedural problem, there will sometimes be a rule cited in the document to which you can refer. Put simply, representing yourself in a legal procedure is not always as easy as it sounds. There are many books written by lawyers for non-lawyers and you will be best prepared by reading everything you can find and getting legal advice from an attorney BEFORE you go to your hearing.
The Family Law Pro Se Project is authorized to give you basic forms and procedural information only. We cannot give legal advice or advise you on courtroom tactics. If you are unsure about how to proceed, we strongly encourage you to seek legal advice.