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Suppose I am not a professional lawyer but I have standing and want to bring a case to court pro se. To make this widely applicable and more readily answerable: Suppose I want to file a 42 USC 1983 complaint in U.S. federal court for some violation of my fourth-amendment rights by a municipal police officer.

I believe the first thing I would want to do is find and read similar cases that have been adjudicated on that law using similar claims in my district. In fact, if I'm reasonably literate I assume I could construct all necessary filings and arguments using examples from prior cases, in addition to getting a sense of my odds of success in court.

But a person who is not a professional lawyer typically lacks ready access to Lexis, WestLaw, and other such professional resources for researching recent and applicable case law. (Let us assume that the Bar does not exist in principle as a barrier to citizens seeking redress of grievances through the judicial system. I.e., "That's what lawyers are for, so pay up if you want justice" may be the practical answer. But I want to know how practical it is for one to seek justice pro se.)

How can a pro se litigant to find applicable case law and bootstrap his way through the judicial process?

  • Is "the most effective way" good for a Stack Exchange question? It seems possibly opinion-based. – cpast May 28 '15 at 18:10
  • @cpast - good point. I just revised the question to make it practical and remove that possible opinion element. – feetwet May 28 '15 at 18:19
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As a pro se litigant, you have the same power as an attorney to prepare your case. What is that power? Subpoena power. That is the power to compel witnesses to appear and give testimony.

Along with subpoena power, you have the power given by the rules of discovery, to conduct discovery, send interrogatories (written questions to the opponent and non-parties), requests for admission (requests that opponents and non-parties admit or deny statements of fact), requests for production (of tangible documents and things) and to take depositions (recorded testimony). Those tools (powers) are available to you just as if you were a lawyer.

Out of that body of information, you develop your proof to support your claim at trial. Those relevant facts that tend to prove your theory of the case and disprove the other sides. The primary problem a pro se litigant faces compared to a lawyer is knowing how to exercise that power, knowing what questions to ask, and knowing what facts are likely to be persuasive on the ultimate issues at trial. It's having the power, but due to lack of experience, not utilizing it effectively that is usually the biggest hurdle for pro se litigants to overcome.

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    I think the bigger obstacle is to understand the motions and filings dance that proceeds a case. I think even most lawyers will agree the trail and the initial filing are the easy part its the navigation of the stuff in between that creates the biggest barrier for a pro se case. – Chad May 29 '15 at 20:14
  • Yes, there has been more than one lawyer fall by the sword of procedure. Those sticky little deadlines can really get you. – David C. Rankin May 29 '15 at 21:40
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If you want to bring a 1983 suit, and you can't afford or don't want to pay a lawyer, your best resource is to contact a lawyer who will represent you for free.

There are civil rights and advocacy groups that will take on this type of case, and even if they won't, they may be willing to give you a quick evaluation of your case to tell you if it's something worth pursuing.

Basically, what I'm saying is, the assumption in your second paragraph--that civil rights law is something you can teach yourself by reading other people's pleadings and filings--is false. There are people who study the law for three years, and still aren't considered competent enough to be licensed. You are not going to pick it up in a week or two.

I saw many pro se plaintiffs bringing complex tort suits in my time as a practicing lawyer. None succeeded. Several had to pay significant fines or attorney fees. At least one ended up in jail.

  • Thank you for this answer, especially as it is informed by professional experience! Can you clarify: Is the problem primarily in determining whether to pursue a claim (and, presumably, that bringing unmeritorious claims you risk getting stuck with legal fees and even jail)? Or are you saying that, if an experienced lawyer evaluates the case and says to go ahead, they will also be able to give you enough guidance to keep you out of real trouble as you proceed? If the latter is true, is that guidance available elsewhere, or does it depend too much on the specifics of a case? – feetwet May 28 '15 at 18:41
  • Put another way, the follow-up question might be, "Even if he can't get the attention of an advocacy lawyer (e.g., the police performed an illegal search, but not enough harm was done to move their needle; or perhaps the department otherwise hasn't attracted negative attention), are there warning signs that a pro se plaintiff can pick up on if he's listening carefully that will keep him out of trouble? Or is there really just too much experience needed to reliably make the right calls on critical decisions, so pro se litigation is inherently perilous?" – feetwet May 28 '15 at 18:57
  • Why did the pros se litigants fail? Was it because of ignorance of legal protocols? Was it because they used overly aggressive tactics that most lawyers wouldn't use? Was it because they failed to prove their case, when a competent lawyer might have succeed? – Libra Jun 27 '15 at 14:51
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I fully agree with Chapka that this would be inadvisable. That said, there are lower cost legal research options, especially since this is in Federal court.

  • First, before alternatives, there may be public law libraries that offer some kind of Westlaw or Lexis access from on-site terminals. Law libraries also provide access to the practice manuals and etc. that would be needed to figure out the procedure for a case like a §1983 suit (and procedure more generally).

  • PACER is the database that holds Federal court filings & court documents. PACER searches aren't prohibitively expensive, but they can add up. Since these are public, there is a project (and browser extension) called Recap that provides access to crowdsourced copies of items retrieved from Pacer.

  • Google Scholar indexes some court opinions.

  • Fastcase is low-cost although it is not fully reliable when it comes to citation checking (last I checked)

  • Loislaw is another low cost alternative. It claims its citation checking is up to par with WL & LN's.

  • Ravel is pretty amazing for Federal case law and offers trial accounts.

  • Findlaw has a digest of information on 1983 claims.

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This will be difficult. For an intelligent, well-read person to research enough law to successfully launch a lawsuit takes about a month of reading and research. You will need to go to a law library. Most states have public law libraries. Preparing and filing the complaint and other documents is relatively straigtforward.

Where you will have problems is: (1) conducting the discovery, (2) arguing the case, (3) responding to motions by the defense in a timely and correct manner.

In a case like this, it is guaranteed that the state will fight it hard, so you will run a high risk of the case being dismissed because you screwed up and did something wrong.

Suing a private person or company pro se is much easier and has a higher probability of success.

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My experience as pro se litigant qualifies me to address your questions about the practicality of pursuing justice in pro per, and resources for legal research (in that sequence).

how practical is it for one to seek justice pro se?

I strongly encourage pro se litigation, although it entails huge demands emotionally, intellectually, and in terms of effort.

Here are some recent cases in the U.S. Supreme Court where the petitioner is represented by multiple law offices, and yet his/its Petition for Writ of Certiorari was denied: 17-1176, 17-1111, 17-1246.

I am not reading their briefs, but I get the impression that in each of these cases the petitioner bore attorney fees for essentially nothing (mind that corporations can only proceed through counsel, but one counsel suffices).

What happened in each of those cases? (1) Is the judicial system broken even in the U.S. Supreme Court? or (2) did these law offices team up in taking their client's money despite knowing that his position was devoid of merit? Logic prohibits to simultaneously answer both questions with a "no". Another possibility is that (3) these joint law offices genuinely misapprehended how the law applies to the controversy they litigated. Regardless, a pro se litigant who makes his best effort is exempt of the costly risks (2) and (3).

Various review websites reflect many people's frustration for their lawyer's lack of diligence. By contrast, a pro se litigant has much greater control over the flow of his case, even if only because the pro se litigant does not need to shuffle a multitude of totally unrelated controversies.

Also I've heard some outrageous stories about lawyers' negligence. For instance, a friend of mine told me that his attorney skipped the deposition because the attorney went to a funeral. Then I said to him "I'm sure that she doesn't have to go to a funeral when it's time to send you the bill".

While some (or several) attorneys are honest, there's a simple reason why no lawyer will defend your position as sternly you would: An attorney won't risk his/her cushy or soft-spoken relation with the judges in that court, lest the attorney finds himself (herself) forced to move his practice to another county/district/jurisdiction. In that sense, your cause is compromised by the lawyer without you knowing it.

A lawyer can get vehement, though, when he himself gets strangled by the judge. In Morris v. Schnoor, the appellant attorney is quoted as saying that "When the judiciary acts as the b_tch for complainant, we get rulings like this" (the appellate opinion reproduces the actual b-word). Just don't expect much boldness when a lawyer litigates your case.

Note: I do not encourage saying obscenities to a judge, no matter how badly they deserve it. The First Amendment does not protect obscenity.

For a very small fraction of what an average lawyer bills his client, the pro se litigant can cover all other fees (complaint, motions, transcripts, appeal, etc.) in the trial, appellate, and supreme courts.

Moreover, the client might not even know what exactly he's being billed for. Here's an example: The attorneys representing my former employer filed a motion to extend the deadline for appellee's brief in the Michigan supreme court. These attorneys alleged that my Application brief requires them to conduct extra research. I have no clue how much they charged the defendant for that maneuver, but they representing him ended up filing a brief (November 6, 2017) which largely consists of a copy/paste of their filings in trial court. Interestingly, their appellee's brief reflects no "extra" research, and they failed to address many of the arguments I developed in my Application for Leave to Appeal.

What resources are available to a pro se litigant?

I agree that Lexis is free very useful for case law research, provided that you are enrolled in college or have access to their terminals.

The flexibility of its search form is one of Lexis nicest features. As an example, you can retrieve court opinions that have the word "malice" within #n words of "defamation". That feature helps filtering out court opinions which mention a term only tangentially. To illustrate my point, an opinion often summarizes that "A sued B for breach of contract, defamation, unjust enrichment, [etc]", yet defamation is not alluded anywhere else in the opinion. That renders that authority useless for your research on defamation case law.

However, don't limit your legal research to using Lexis. I made that mistake during trial phase and much of the appellate process. Lexis lacks or misses some important cases. By the time I noticed that deficiency, the briefing period in my appellate process had ended months earlier.

In my experience, the most important (but not only) case Lexis search engine kept missing was Mareck v. Johns Hopkins University, 60 Md.App. 217 (1984) (affirmed, 1985). Mareck has a striking similarity with one of my cases, and it supports many of my arguments for which I couldn't previously find legal precedents. Leagle.com lacks the functionality of Lexis, but is entirely free and does not require any sort of enrollment or membership.

Not sure whether this applies to every trial court, but the public is also allowed to read (and order copies of) cases in the court. That gives pro se litigants a valuable exposure which is missing from literature regarding litigation. Both of my defamation lawsuits (different defendants) satisfy the prima facie elements of the offenses, but the structure and composition of my first complaint looks very unorthodox. By contrast, my second complaint reflects the exposure I gained in three months by taking note of others' complaints and motions.

A resource of moderate value are the online law forums. There are well-meaning participants who clarified legal concepts for me. However, I say those forums are of moderate value because: - some individuals embrace a role of sarcastic jurors (example: when somebody asks "can I sue for XYZ?", those guys like to answer "sure, you can sue, but you would lose", and it just gets worse); - many replies don't go beyond "ask an attorney"; and - those forums are usually managed by attorney$, so they di$like when a non-attorney provides effective advice that disproves the "need" for lawyers; that's actually what got me banned from two such forums.

Last but not least, two other resources are my own site/blog www.oneclubofjusticides.com and my Youtube channel One Club Of Justicides. In the site I post most of the court records from two of my cases (apropos of exposure, see above), whereas video format permits directing the viewer's attention to aspects that aren't covered in litigation books.

Nolo books and other educational materials simply ASSUME that attorneys and judges act with professionalism and integrity. Thus, these educational materials don't warn the pro se litigant about the gross misconduct that these so-called "officers of the court" engage with. To name few examples, books don't prepare you for situations where: - the opposing counsel files a fraudulent motion and supplement in his attempt to obtain an award of $1,500 (in one of my videos I show how I disproved in court the crook's allegations); - some judges repeatedly deceive and make false promises to a pro se litigant; - defense counsel will try very hard that the transcript of the deposition (April 18, 2016) of her client be hard to read, and her method to attain that is by heckling you while you're trying to take the deposition of defendant; - your cases might be presided by a felon who gets busted for illegal possession of narcotics; - the judge's narcotics incident unearths evidence of judicial bias.

In my videos I intend to help the pro se community know sooner rather than later what irregularities to watch out for in their own judicial proceedings.

Is it worth the effort?

It definitely is. However, among other things, get prepared for the "gremial" trolling when you denounce uncomfortable truths about the judicial system (see a lawyer's remark of "misplaced paranoia" regarding my answer in this other post).

An attorney can deplete his client's savings pretty quickly, whereas I have retained my ability to bring my cases up to the U.S. Supreme Court (17-1560 and 17-1576). Likewise, hiring a negligent attorney would have kept me in the dark as to who (the lawyer or the judge) defrauded me.

Judicial corruption is very hard to overcome, yet no amount of judicial ineptitude -moral or otherwise- can change the fact that I (a pro se litigant) obtained clear evidence that the defendants acted unlawfully, and of how others (here, the University of Michigan) knowingly abetted both defendants' misconduct.

Nevertheless, not all cases are worth the litigation. The example you outline (fourth amendment rights and municipal police officer) sounds in a traffic stop or akin inconsequential events. By contrast, unlawful and unwarranted injuries to a person's reputation or dignity have important ramifications and definitely merit taking legal action.

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