A person who represents oneself in court without the assistance of an attorney, whether as the defendant or the plaintiff, and whether or not the issue before the court is criminal or civil, is said to be operating pro se (a Latin phrase meaning "for oneself"). In the United States, at least, the right of a member of the public to represent himself predates the existence of the U.S. Constitution, and it is generally considered a part of the protected right to seek a redress of grievances.
In general, most legal professionals consider a person going to court without the aid of an attorney to be a really bad idea. Even when the litigant is an attorney oneself. Not all attorneys are versed in all forms of law; how many alleged murderers does the average tax lawyer defend in their lifetime, after all? Furthermore, even if said attorney is an expert in the precise field of law, being that close to the matter at hand is a great way to lose sight of the big picture.
But of course, something being a really bad idea has never stopped anyone before, even when the charge is only a parking violation.
Almost always lampshaded by someone asking the character if he is aware of the adage. Naturally this appears quite often in Courtroom Drama. In comedies, the pro se character often engages in Courtroom Antics that would get him thrown into jail in Real Life, but because it is Played for Laughs, the character will often get away with itnote A bit of Truth In Television here, as judges are usually more tolerant of irregularities from those appearing pro se and don't know the rules than they would be of an attorney, who should presumably know better, though it's still possible to take it way too far and repeatedly engaging in behavior you've been warned against WILL get you jailed for contempt. Often involves Talking to Himself when the character cross-examines himself. And it is almost guaranteed that, in response to the judge telling the character that he is "out of order", the character will yell back at the judge, "No, you'reout of order!" because apparently a lot of comedy writers are also Al Pacino fans.
See also Informed Self Diagnosis, the equivalent trope for medical doctors. Compare The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes.
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In the 2011 Daredevil series, this actually becomes attorney Matt Murdock's new business plan. Since Matt Murdock is widely suspected of secretly being Daredevil, it becomes difficult for him to represent clients effectively. So he and his partner Foggy Nelson start a new business — coaching clients who can't afford or don't want to hire counsel to effectively represent themselves in court.
The Addams Family: "They say a man who represents himself has a fool for a client. Well, with God as my witness, I am that fool!"
One of creator Charles Addams' comic strips featured a man climbing over a witness stand and a caption reading something along the lines of:
"Mr. Smith, I have no problem with you representing yourself, but would you please, for the love of God, stop jumping in and out of that chair!"
Fielding Mellish does this in Woody Allen's film Bananas. His self-cross-examination is actually one of the less absurd scenes in this movie - except for the fact he's his own hostile witness.
Fielding:DOES THE TERM 'OPERATION SAPPHIRE MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU?!?!
In Fracture, Ted Crawford (played by Anthony Hopkins) decides to represent himself in an attempted murder trial, and he does it veryeffectively. He manages to get himself acquitted despite a signed confession, a murder weapon, and motive.
The way he was able to do this was that the investigating detective was sleeping with the victim (the killer's wife) making the confession suspect when the detective's testimony of it was undermined, and the murder weapon had never been fired (he had switched it with the detective's weapon as they were identical models). As for motive, without evidence it's useless. This was helped by the fact that the prosecutor had his foot out the door as he was about to get a job at a prestigious law firm and wasn't taking the case very seriously due to the mountain of evidence. Crawford also purposely used an Obfuscating Stupidity angle by presenting himself as a layman unaquainted with courtroom procedures but deciding to represent himself by exercising his basic rights presumably out of hubris. When he later pushes for an acquital based on lack of admissable evidence by the prosecution, he reveals that he has quite a bit of legal expertise, which the annoyed judge quickly notices.
When the prosecutor then finds a way to try Crawford for murder, Crawford hires a defense team of 4+ lawyers. He no longer has the tricks available that got him acquitted the first time. Both times rely on Hollywood Law.
Inverted in Law Abiding Citizen in that he does insist on defending himself but he's also highly intelligent and he did do research on it beforehand. They find books on law at his home when they arrest him. He's not a lawyer, but he's smart enough to handle his defense purely on what he taught himself. Also, he never goes to trial, it's just at his bail hearing, and he mocks the judge for accepting his legal arguments to provoke her into sending him to jail. All part of his plan.
Robert Kearns defends himself in Flash Of Genius in his 1980 lawsuit against Ford, which ends with $10.1 million in damages, after his attorney Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda) withdraws from the suit. He then sues Chrysler in 1992, receiving $18.7 million. In Real Life, he was represented by Gregory Lawson in the suit against Ford, but did represent himself against Chrysler. It's possible this was changed to have a scene where he examines himself in the witness stand in homage of the King of the Hill episode below.
Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. Unsurprisingly, given the book's message of individualism and libertarianism, it works.
In the G. K. Chesterton story "The Ecstatic Thief", the eponymous thief defends himself successfully.
In the first Tim Dorsey novel, a high school student represents himself and his friends on drunk driving and possession of alcohol charges, despite having never once even looked at a law book before getting arrested. He succeeds in getting them all off on a technicality, and grows up to be a DA.
In the third book in the Babylon 5 PsiCorps trilogy, Bester defends himself in a war crimes trial. His closing statement actually gets an ovation. While he doesn't get himself completely off the hook, his sentence is reduced from death to life in prison while on sleeper (telepathic suppression) drugs.
In Oh, God!, Jerry Landers represents himself when he's sued by the Reverend Willie Williams, whom Landers has called (at God's direction) a "phony," sues him for slander, despite the Judge advising him that a lawyer would be "most helpful" to him.
Live Action TV
The eponymous character from The Drew Carey Show represents himself in court against a charge of sexual harassment. He sent around a cartoon of a caterpillar having sex with a French fry, and one of the female employees took offense to it. In the end, while the judge admits that the person who did the most damage to Drew's case was Drew himself (to which Drew replies by suggesting one of his friends had an even worse performance), he dismisses the case.
Harmon Rabb had to defend himself a couple of times in JAG.
In one episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a defendant decides to do this in order to delay his trial, giving him a chance to escape from custody.
Another episode has the defendant dismiss his lawyer and represent himself with plenty of pork; he takes particular pleasure in cross-examining a man he stabbed, pressing to know what he was feeling as he lay bleeding out.
Michael Bluth represents his family in a mock trial on Arrested Development. His family mocks him, assuming he only thinks he's a lawyer because he portrayed one in a grade-school play, The Trial of Captain Hook, once upon a time.
James Smith had an unusual justification for him defending himself - he was a trained lawyer, but the same mental illness that drove him to kill had prevented him from actually practicing law a day in his life. He thus saw his own murder trial as potentially his only chance to do what he'd always wanted to do. He takes a deal after the DA gets his sister to testify about his instability; at the end of the episode McCoy looks over the summation Smith intended to give and says it could've hung the jury.
Several more of these guys were themselves lawyers, including Marty Winston (an arrogant litigator who tended to shoot anyone that got in the way of his courtroom victories), Victor Vargas Moreno (a fraudster who was disbarred for stealing from clients), Harold Jensen (a defense attorney who framed his own clients for killing his wife), and Mark Paul Kopell (an old friend of McCoy's who joined the mob).
Of Susan Boyd's self-produced court documents, Assistant District Attorney Jamie Ross said, "I've seen briefs written by thirty year courtroom veterans that weren't this good." Susan Boyd was a medical secretary, and had no formal legal training.
On Law & Order: UK, James Steel successfully defends himself against charges of "perverting the course of justice".
The plot of "Defence" also mirrors that of "Pro Se" in the original Law and Order, although the mentally ill defendant here is much Darker and Edgier, showing no remorse for his murders, even though they occurred amidst a schizophrenic delusion.
This happens in Red Dwarf, allowing the setup of the following gag:
Rimmer: If only I'd hired a smarter lawyer, instead of the brain-dead, pompous, stupid-haired git I ended up with.
Lister: You defended yourself!
It also happens in "Justice", again with Rimmer, who kept attempting to object to Kryten's statements despite Kryten being his defense attorney. Though it's a bit more understandable this time around, as Kryten's defense consisted of "Rimmer is too stupid and incompetent to have been responsible for the crime he's been accused of."
In a Clip Show episode of Dark Justice, the team is accused of being "The Night Watchmen," the accomplices of the eponymous vigilante. They are tried in front of Judge Marshall (who is secretly Dark Justice himself). They plead not guilty, represent themselves, and ultimately do not even mount a defense, arguing instead that the prosecution didn't make its case that they are the Night Watchmen (which is perfectly acceptable, though inadvisable, in Real Life trials).
In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon defends himself in traffic court for an unpaid ticket. He fails and gets himself thrown in jail for contempt of court, though this is due to him being an insufferable ass and insulting the judge rather than his lack of qualifications.
In one episode of Sledge Hammer!, Sledge gets accused of murder and decides to defend himself. Right before the big surprise reveal at the end, the judge asks the Prosecution if they have anything to say and the prosecutor responds that Sledge has already made all their points for them.
Subverted in the season 5 finale of Bones: The Gravedigger, a former prominent prosecutor, represents herself on multiple murder charges; she consistently out-maneuvered the prosecutor (Caroline) for most of the trial and didn't make any obvious legal mistakes (with the possible exception of acting way too smug for someone who is on trial for kidnapping and first-degree murder—in a jury trial no less) and is convicted.
In the season 4 premiere of The Mentalist, Jane chooses to represent himself, in a trial for a murder that he freely admits to. He's acquitted.
Before that, the phrase itself is briefly mentioned-
Cho: "If you represent yourself, you're an idiot."
William Garrow in Garrow's Law does this during his potentially ruinous criminal conversation trial at the King's Bench. He manages it successfully to the point where, although the jury find in favour of Sir Arthur Hill, Hill is only awarded damages of one shilling.
One Kenan & Kel episode featured Kenan suing a tuna cannery for 10 million dollars after finding a screw in his tuna. Wanting to keep all the money to himself rather than paying a percentage of it to any lawyer, he represented himself. Assuming a lawyer could have persuaded Kenan to settle for one million dollars as the cannery proposed, Kenan was really a fool in that case since it turns out the tuna company was innocent, and the real culprit -if by accident- was actually Kel.
In Trailer Park Boys, Ricky does this twice; the first time is offscreen and... doesn't exactly go in his favor, whereas the second time is onscreen and somehow works perfectly for him.
Married... with Children: Al was sued when his children caused a car crash and he decided he didn't need a lawyer. The judge ruled against him and he was forced to pay for damages. To avoid being arrested for not paying, Al decided to go into hiding but was ran over by someone who, according to the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, paid Al's debt as a way to settle.
In another episode, a burglar broke into Al's house and Al punched him. The burglar sued Al for $50,000 and Al considered the case too much of a Frivolous Lawsuit to hire a lawyer. When Al lost, he decided to make it $100,000 by punching the thief again, which allowed Al to sue the thief, claiming to have broken his hand at the thief's face. Completely Hollywood Law, of course.
Shark: Sebastian Stark prosecuted a serial killer who decided to defend himself and got Off on a Technicality because the key witness died before he had a chance to cross-examine her and another technicality prohibited Stark from proving the defendant induced her into suicide. The killer became his own client again when he was accused of killing another woman. He was convicted but Stark told him the victim had actually killed herself and he made it look like a homicide just to get him convicted for it. The killer later represents himself again at his appeal, but knows he can't win- it was only cover to escape.
Subverted in The New Statesman - B'Stard sacks his counsel, his fellow MP and usual lackey Piers Fletcher-Dervish, and does a better job representing himself because Piers is an idiot who only qualified as a barrister through family connections. And the whole case was a sham anyway.
It is revealed on Star Trek: Voyager that the Klingons have a variation on this; at one point, B'Lanna Torres relates to the Doctor the Klingon proverb "The doctor who operates on himself has a P'Tok for a patient."
In The Odd Couple's many court episodes, Felix always wants to represent himself in court and was nearly always incompetent at it, with one spectacular exception while questioning an assuming accuser.
In 1995 Saturday Night Live did an opening skit parodying the Real Life pro se defense of Colin Ferguson, who was then on trial for murder (referring to himself in third person throughout). The actual defense was, if anything, more ridiculous. Not surprisingly, given the overwhelming evidence against him, Ferguson was convicted.
In the All in the Family episode, "Archie's Civil Rights," Archie is charged with possession of a tear gas weapon and tries to defend himself at his arraignment hearing without a lawyer. Of course, not only does this irritate the judge for being out of order, but his typical bigoted and dimwitted blathering leads to him admitting he used it in an offensive manner, leading him to be almost charged with an assault felony. Only when the judge learns that the weapon was found by the police office after an illegal search does the charge get dismissed.
Equal Justice: Averted in "Sugar Blues" (1x10), where a prisoner defends himself on a murder charge. While he ends up losing, he gives the prosecutor a very hard time. He turned himself into a jailhouse lawyer inside and had apparently won previous cases at trial, so it's justified. An old woman who comes just to watch trials claims he's her favorite, since he's that good.
Calvin and Hobbes: Referenced in one strip: after Calvin hits Susie with a snowball, he defends himself by saying "I didn't do it! And anyway, you can't prove it." Cut to Calvin face down in the snow after Susie clobbers him with the tagline "The defendant petitions the court for a new trial on the grounds that his lawyer is incompetent" (with Calvin, of course, having been his own "lawyer").
Obviously, Ace Attorney has had this. For the most part, however, the client is also a lawyer trained in criminal law (with experience in first-degree murder cases), at a criminal-law trial involving first-degree murder.
To wit: This happens in the final part of Case 2 of the first game, where the defendant's role is switched from Maya to Phoenix, due to a false accusation. He knows it is a bad idea, but moves forward anyway and wins the trial. In this case he doesn't have a choice. Redd White used his connections to make sure no defense lawyer in town would want to help him, even going so far to suggest that the only state-appointed lawyer Phoenix would get would be so incompetent that Phoenix would look good by comparison.
It also happens in Ace Attorney Investigations, though there's no trial here: Edgeworth has to clear his own name in Case 2, where he faces the stewardess Rhoda Teneiro in order to convince her to release him and allow him to examine the rest of the airplane to find the true culprit. And do the same thing when Franziska enters the investigation.
In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies , Athena Cykes indirectly plays this role in Case 5, Phoenix Wright is still the main defense attorney but she goes to the assistant side in both defending Simon Blackquill and confronting Fulbright. The Judge reminds her to go back to the defendant seat after it is all over.
This occurs in Chapter 4 of Tales of Monkey Island, and features the question of whether the defendant is aware of the maxim, the "I am that fool!" response, the "You're out of order!" exchange, and the Talking to Himself bit. The whole thing ends with a fistfight between the pro se lawyer and his own client.
This is the solution to one of the "puzzles" (more a scripted event than a puzzle, really), namely how to break out of jail. The "lawyer" calls for the guard to let him out because "his client" is assaulting him, and the guard does so.
It's also worth noting that the Playstation 3 download has a trophy if you try out all of the possible conversations between Guybrush and his client. Said trophy is actually called "A Fool For A Client".
In Knights of the Old Republic, after you cause a disturbance at the Sith embassy on Manaan, you're brought before the judges for threatening Manaan's neutrality. Contrary to the saying, your only hope is to dismiss the arbiter they appoint for you and argue your case yourself; if you let the appointed arbiter argue for you, you'll end up being executed. Later, after the events at the Hrakert Rift, you're brought before the judges yet again, again on your own.
In Neverwinter Nights 2, the player character is put on trial with a competent party member acting as the defense attorney. Naturally, the player can also opt to self-represent, and with a strong score in diplomacy, bluff, or intimidate skill, can verbally tear the prosecution's testimony to shreds. Or engage in typical Courtroom Antics for the same end result, which is probably even more fun.
In one episode, Johnny Bravo did this and took it way, way too far.
Gonzo does this in the Muppet Babies episode "Weirdo for the Prosecution".
Skeeter: Gonzo's lawyer is cracked.
Piggy: And his client could use a little glue, too.
In The Venture Bros., the Monarch represents himself when he's suspected of murdering a police officer, and at one point called himself to testify about the events of that night. In a later episode he does it again while subjected to a "crucible" by the Guild of Calamitous Intent, and in a deleted scene directly quotes the phrase about "a fool for a client."
The Simpsons episode The Regina Monologues: Homer represented himself instead of hiring a barrister. Marge allowed it because she didn't think Homer's chances were good enough to be damaged by the decision. Not surprisingly, Homer managed to offend the judge, jury and British public at large even further (he was on trial for crashing into the Queen's carriage)-ending up in the Tower of London.
Petey: You know, they say that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.
Massey: HAVE YOU SEEN WHO I WORK FOR?!?
As the strip shows, however, it was justified. The Fleetmind doesn't permit representation in court, and Massey was one of the defendants.
Red vs. Blue: Subverted/Lampshaded: After Simmons paints himself blue and temporarily joins the Blue Team, Sarge tries him for treason in a mock court. He appoints Grif as Simmons's council.
Simmons: Oh, no no. I'm representing myself!
Sarge: You know what they say, Simmons: 'A man who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer.' And that foolis Grif.
In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter who had recently taken up being an electrician, was accused of breaking and entering after a Panama City, FL pool hall was robbed of some small change and beverages. Too poor to afford an attorney, he was subsequently denied a public defender by the judge (only in capital crimes did the judge have to provide a public defender). He represented himself in his criminal trial, and although observers say he did a pretty good job for a pro se defendant, he was found guilty of breaking and entering and sentenced to five years in prison. While in prison, Gideon appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who (in a unanimous decision) ruled that all criminal defendants have the right to legal counsel. Gideon received a new trial, and with the aid of an attorney was acquitted of the crime.
Comedian Lenny Bruce defended himself in several obscenity trials.
In the late 1980s, in the largest organized crime trial in U.S. history, low-level mobster Jackie DiNorscio decided to stand trial rather than rat out other members of the Lucchese Crime Family and decided to represent himself because he was "disappointed" in his prior legal representation. Despite a lack of any tangible legal knowledge, and despite angering both the prosecution, the judge, and the other defense attorneys (and their clients, the other mobsters) with his Courtroom Antics, he was eventually found not guilty, along with the rest of the defendants, following a trial which lasted over a year (which some felt was the reason for the mass acquittal by the jury, as revenge on the prosecution for keeping them there so long).
This is loosely portrayed in the film Find Me Guilty, starring Vin Diesel as Jackie DiNorscio.
Serial killer Ted Bundy acted as his own attorney in his 1980 trial. The judge complimented him on doing a good job, in fact, and commented that Bundy might have made a good attorney. Even so, he wasn't good enough to keep himself out of the electric chair (Bundy had represented himself while on trial in Colorado earlier, and escaped by jumping out of a law library window where he had been allowed access to research his case).
Another case with the same outcome: Caryl Chessman defended himself in his 1948 trial for kidnapping and, upon conviction, the judge complimented him on his legal skills before sending him to the Gas Chamber.
Similar to Bundy, Mike De Bardeleben, a prolific rapist, represented himself during his rape cases. It led to a Hoist by His Own Petard moment: when cross-examining one of his victims, he led her through the rape and described the car she was raped in with such detail it was painfully obvious he had driven it.
Moral Guardian and dear friend of gamers everywhere Jack Thompson tried this during his disbarment hearings. It didn't quite work the way he wanted.
Courts, especially lower courts (County, District, Local, Magistrates, etc.) will bend over backwards to accommodate self-represented litigants who at least are trying to get their matter resolved. The rather amusing spectacle of a Magistrate (and sometimes even Police Prosecutors, who while not allowed to directly help may slip them copies of exonerating evidence the defendant has forgotten to bring to the court) actively helping a defendant with their case is fairly common in most courtrooms.
Counter-intuitively, this trope might not be a complete Truth in Television. The insane Colin Fergusons aside, a recent study, found here, argues that most pro se criminal defendants are not mentally ill, and don't generally do much worse than represented criminal defendants.
The place where pro se is a serious disadvantage isn't actually the criminal courts so much as it is certain civil tribunals, particularly summary-eviction proceedings in landlord-tenant courts. In summary eviction cases, essentially the only defense available is that the landlord committed a housing-code violation or otherwise breached the implied warranty of habitability—i.e. that the leased premises aren't fit to live in in the first place. Most tenants who receive notice of summary-eviction proceedings don't know this and go up before the court pleading poverty or misunderstanding—which are most emphatically not a defense, and at best get you a delay of a few months before you have to either pay up or get kicked out. And for whatever reason, landlord-tenant courts look more kindly upon requests for such a delay when it comes from a lawyer—probably because it means the tenant is taking the problem seriously and trying to figure out a solution. Pro se representation is commonly viewed as the domain of the "professional tenant", who are nonpaying tenants with frustratingly complete knowledge of landlord-tenant laws and an unrivaled ability to stonewall landlords for months if not years before eventually leaving them with a worthless judgment and completely trashed property.
Ferdinand Marcos was once accused by taking part in a politically-motivated assassination. Long story short he represented himself and won. He would become the President of the Philippines before implementing martial law and becoming a dictator. He was removed from power following the People Power Revolution (also known as the EDSA revolution) in 1986.
Cult leader Charles Manson was notorious for demanding to represent himself at his trial for his mass murders despite the pleas of the Judge to reconsider. Of course, the fact that he is completely deranged makes him hopeless at doing that with insane motions and requests.