Is Representing Yourself in Court Always a Bad Idea?

Abraham Lincoln, attorney and former President of the United States, once said, "He who represents himself has a fool for a client." There are numerous compelling reasons why defendants should hire attorneys to handle their criminal cases. However, there are also a few times when it may make more sense for defendants to represent themselves in court, especially if money is the reason why they can't hire attorneys. Here's what you need to know to determine if this is a good option for you.

Appropriate Times to Represent Yourself

When weighing the option to represent yourself in court, there are several factors you should take into consideration. The first and most important is the type of punishment you can expect to face if you're convicted of the crime. The less severe the consequences, the more likely you can get away with handling your own case.

For example, it's probably safe for you to represent yourself in traffic court, especially if your case involves minor crimes such as running a red light or unpaid parking tickets. In most cases, all you'll face is a fine if you lose. Sometimes you may be sentenced to community service or a short stint (only a few days or weeks) in jail.

On the other hand, if your case involves serious violations that may result in more severe consequences (e.g. years in jail, thousands of dollars in restitution), you should have an attorney represent you or, at least, consult with one while representing yourself.

Along those same lines, you may be okay to represent yourself if the crime comes with predetermined sentencing and you plan on pleading guilty. For instance, the law requires those charged with burglary to be sentenced to five years in jail. While the judge may have a little bit of leeway when it comes to the final sentence, you can expect to spend at least 5 years in jail if the court accepts your plea.

Even in this situation, though, it may still be a good idea to obtain the assistance of a criminal defense attorney. You may feel like all the evidence is against you, but an attorney may be able to find weaknesses in the prosecutor's case that may result in a better outcome for you. At the very least, the attorney can negotiate a plea deal that may lead to fewer criminal penalties.

Whether or not you hire a lawyer, it's important that you keep a level head and don't let the stress of a legal battle get the best of you. If you know you cannot do these things alone, you definitely need a criminal defense lawyer.

Getting a Judge's Approval

Judges are required to allow defendants to represent themselves if they request to do so. However, to avoid a mistrial or other legal problems that can occur when defendants manage their own cases, the judge will first determine if you are competent enough to participate in the court proceedings. He or she will look at several factors, such as your age, level of education, mental stability, and language proficiency, to ensure you are capable of fully understanding what's happening in the courtroom.

There isn't a specific formula the judge uses to reach his or her decision. If he or she feels there is an issue that may impact your ability to follow and participate in the case, the judge will deny your request and either assign a public defender or require you to hire a private attorney.

For instance, the judge may feel having only a grade school education will negatively impact your ability to understand complex ideas or clearly communicate with the court and witnesses. Therefore, he or she may deny your request to self-represent because it may lead to the conviction being overturned at a later date.

Generally, the judge will interview you either privately or in the courtroom about your competency. The prosecutor will also have an opportunity to object to your request.

As noted previously, representing yourself isn't the best option. At minimum, you should still consult with an attorney about the specifics of your case. The lawyer can provide sound advice that may help you navigate the system more successfully than if you were to go it completely alone. For more information about this issue, contact a lawyer in your area.