Legal Representation

Do I have the legal right to represent myself in court?

Judicial images

Individuals may represent themselves in court (called "pro se" representation). A person representing someone else, a group or corporation must be a licensed attorney who is authorized to practice before the court. Some cases, such as small claims, have relaxed rules that accommodate people who represent themselves. In most cases, however, the law and rules of court apply both to persons who have attorneys and persons who represent themselves. Judges will require compliance with the law, including procedural rules, and must remain impartial. This protects the legal rights of everyone, including persons who represent themselves. If you decide to represent yourself, you must prepare your own case. Ethical rules prevent judges from giving you any advice about how you should conduct your case. For more information, see also Representing Yourself in Missouri Courts.

Effective January 1, 2009, people who represent themselves in a family law case must complete the Supreme Court Litigant Awareness Program and file the certificate of completion with the Circuit Clerk. See more information about the program in the resources section below.

What are the disadvantages of representing myself?

You must be your own advocate: preparing all the necessary paperwork and speaking for yourself in court (only licensed attorneys may speak on behalf of other people). Litigation requires a lot of effort. Savings in legal fees may seem appealing, but consider these other “costs” when you represent yourself:

  1. Learning the ropes. The vocabulary, procedures and rules of court are unfamiliar to lay persons. Consider the amount of time and money you are willing to invest to learn the law, pleadings requirements, evidentiary rules, and order drafting skills necessary to represent yourself appropriately.

  2. Keeping your cool. Judicial decisions are based on application of the law using reason and logic. It requires a certain amount of detachment to handle your matter objectively. Divorce and custody disputes in particular are emotional experiences involving significant stress. Consider whether you have the temperament to evaluate your case apart from emotional considerations and conduct yourself appropriately in court.

  3. Limited experience. An attorney who regularly advocates for clients has acquired valuable experience that assists them in selecting appropriate options, avoiding pitfalls, and submitting evidence effectively in court. Consider whether you will be able to adequately compensate for your lack of experience in presenting your case.

  4. Risking what’s at stake. Consider what is at stake in your case. What could be the best outcome and what could be the worst outcome? Is this matter of such importance that you feel competent to handle it yourself? Will you be able to live with a determination reached through representing yourself? Your case will only be tried once. You cannot hire an attorney afterwards and re-litigate the same issues.

  5. Unfavorable odds. A recent survey of judges conducted by the American Bar Association reports that judges find that people representing themselves in court fail to adquately present their case in these areas more than 75 percent of the time: presenting necessary evidence and objecting to improper evidence, following procedures, examining witnesses, and making effective arguments of the case.

How do I hire a lawyer?

This can be an intimidating task if you have never hired a lawyer before. You should consider what type of legal experience is needed for your case. Legal directories and yellow pages are other sources for contacting a lawyer. Sometimes family and friends can be a resource in contacting a lawyer they have found helpful.

A lawyer generally charges for actual time is spent in working on a case, such as time spent on investigating facts, looking up the many possible laws affecting the case, or preparing and trying a case. When a lawyer charges for "advice" this does not mean you are receiving an offhand personal opinion. A lawyer's advice is a conclusion reached after evaluating your situation and the laws that apply to it. Ask the lawyer about fees at the first meeting with the lawyer. If you cannot afford to pay the fee, tell the lawyer before any work is done for you. Lawyers want to establish a good working relationship with their clients.

How much do legal services cost?

Fees may be set as a fixed amount for specific services provided or may be set at an hourly rate based on the amount of work the lawyer provides. Cases which involve a contested trial are generally the most time consuming for a lawyer. The fee includes the lawyer's time and overhead expenses (staff, equipment, etc.). Court costs and other expenses (such as copying records, hiring experts, and depositions) are paid separately. A "retainer" is an amount the lawyer may ask you to pay in advance and will be drawn down as work progresses. A "contingent" fee is a fee paid only if the lawyer collects money on your case. If you fire the lawyer working for a contingent fee before the case is over, you may need to pay a fee for work the lawyer did on your case. A contingent fee contract should be written and signed by you and your lawyer. Contingent fees are not permitted in family law cases.

Some lawyers are willing to provide "limited representation," meaningful legal services for part of your case while you represent yourself or seek other legal help for other issues. In family matters there are lawyers who engage in "collaborative law" where they assist clients to work out the details of their case in a satisfactory way and avoid the expense of contested trials. A list of Clay County family lawyers assisting people of modest means is available from Kathleen.Bird@courts.mo.gov.

Client Resource Guide
A publication of the Missouri Bar discusses how to hire a lawyer, lawyer fees, and lawyers ethical responsibilities.

What other resources are available?

Assessment Tool - Should I represent myself?
This tool will help you evaluate whether you have the time, skills, and resources to effectively represent yourself.

Self Represented Litigant Awareness Program
This short online educational program will give you a detailed explanation of the risks and responsibilities of representing yourself in a family law case.

Western MO Legal Aid (phone: 816-474-1413)
Provides some assistance based on case type and income (domestic relations cases usually limited to those with domestic violence). Low income persons may be eligible to attend the "pro se clinic" to learn how to file and complete their own divorce case.

The Missouri Bar (phone: 573-635-4128)
Provides consumer information booklets on many topics. Information can be viewed on-line at www.mobar.org.

Where do I find the law?

Missouri statutes are collected in volumes called the "Revised Statutes". Most public libraries have a set in their research section. Statutes are also available at the county law library in the main courthouse. Missouri statutes can be viewed on the internet at http://www.moga.mo.gov/mostatutes/statutesAna.html.

Rules of court are issued by the Missouri Supreme Court and each local circuit. Rules can be found at your library or on the internet at www.courts.mo.gov. A copy of the local court rules can also be obtained from the Circuit Clerk or on this website.

Where do I find forms?

If you decide to represent yourself in the Family Court matter you are required to use family law forms approved by the Missouri Supreme Court. Approved forms are available at no charge at www.selfrepresent.mo.gov. You can fill in the interactive forms online and print them out.

You may always have a lawyer assist you with preparing forms for your family law case. There are other providers who offer to prepare forms for a fee. You may use these forms when no form has yet been approved. Care is needed to make sure the forms you purchase meet all state and circuit requirements. There is a risk that forms may not be acceptable when they are not prepared by a lawyer who understands these requirements. Ask whether the provider supplies any guarantee with purchase of forms.

Some basic procedural forms are provided at no cost by the local Circuit Clerk.

Consider Alternatives to Litigation

Mediation and arbitration are also options for resolving disputes. Free mediation is available for domestic relations, small claims, and rent and possession cases. Mediation and arbitration are also available for other civil cases. For more information contact:

Office of Dispute Resolution Services
351 East Kansas St.
Liberty, MO 64068
816-736-8400
Kathleen.Bird@courts.mo.gov