There are many things in our country that could be better. Our health care system is atrocious. We have great doctors, but so many people can’t afford treatment, and for many others, you have to go through a lot of red tape to get a procedure approved.
Like healthcare, our legal system is well-intentioned and there are many great lawyers (and some not so great). And just like with medicine, your outcome is often due to how much money you have and what you can afford. There isn’t true equal justice for everyone.
So what happens is that some people can afford the right attorney for the case and get the best result possible. Others can only afford a cut-rate attorney who isn’t experienced or doesn’t specialize in the area of law your case involves. So maybe you lose because you have someone who is out-matched. And for some people, they can’t afford anyone and they have to represent themselves.
I don’t blame anyone in that situation. In some of the cases like small claims court, it only makes sense to represent yourself. In others, if it’s a choice between paying your rent or hiring an attorney, it might make sense to pay the rent.
For others, they choose to represent themselves because they know they are in the right and believe if they go to court and tell the truth, things will work out. In a sensible legal system that is how things would work.
In reality though, that’s not how it usually goes. There are two reasons for it, one that is really unfair and you have to know about.
The first is that when you represent yourself, you are held to the same standard as an attorney. That means you have to know how to properly enter evidence, the appropriate way to write legal motions, how to ask questions of witnesses, etc. These are hurdles that some people can overcome. While it would be nice if each court had someone to assist these pro se litigants, that doesn’t happen.
The second reason which you must know about is something that ruins the process. There are many Judges in Illinois who simply will not listen to someone who chooses to represent themselves in court. They won’t let you speak. They will shut you down. They’ll only engage with the lawyer for the other side. They’ll tell you that you have to come back with an attorney. So you might be prepared. You might be clearly in the right. You might know exactly what to say to the Judge. And none of that will matter.
The legal system shouldn’t work this way. The goal should be to get the best result. The reality is that many Judges view themselves as the Kings/Queens of their courtroom and unless they do something outrageous, there is no check or balance on them. And not listening to you isn’t outrageous.
While you want to get your story out, many Judges just want to get through the 100 or so cases on their docket every day. If it’s summer they might have a tee time or desire to enjoy the warm weather. Or maybe they have a kid and want to pick them up from school. Or it could be a Friday (the worst day to be in court if you are representing yourself) and have a desire to make it to Wrigley Field or a happy hour.
So what happens is that they try to move as many cases as quickly as possible. The lawyers that are there a lot know what to say, how to say it, and say it quickly. In the view of some Judges, if they let everyone talk, they’ll never get out of there, so they don’t let any non-lawyer talk. In fact, some of them won’t listen very long to attorneys that they don’t know.
Lawyers know if they are going before a Judge for the first time to ask others about the Judge’s tendencies. Even that is no guarantee that they will get fully heard and they will get shut down too if they don’t keep things simple and short.
This can be infuriating to hear and it’s maddening to even type. But this is the reality of how the legal system works. It’s why many traffic and criminal defendants get supervision on their cases. I’ve seen Judges tell everyone in a courtroom with a first offense under 20 miles an hour to see the court clerk for supervision which essentially wipes out half the cases on a morning docket within minutes.
For you, if you have to represent yourself or choose to do so, if you find that the Judge isn’t going to listen to you and believe they are about to enter an order against you, you should ask for a 30-day continuance to try and secure legal representation. They don’t have to do that for you, but usually, if you ask early enough they will grant that. If you try to get an attorney once you’ve lost, it will likely be too late.
If I had a magic wand and could change the court system so people don’t need lawyers as much, I would. Or there would be court-appointed and paid-for attorneys when needed. But until that happens just be very careful if you do go at it alone. You can be right and lose because nobody knows you are right but you.