As someone who is aware of instances where individuals choose to self-represent, I know that I am way out of my depth to represent myself should I find myself in need of legal services.

However, for legal professionals and non-professionals, under what conditions would an individual choose to self-represent?

The only situation I can think of is due to attorney-client privilege. If a defendant has committed a crime, they would choose to self-represent to ensure that no one else would know about the circumstances of their crime. Although lawyers are ethically bound to not disclose information that would not be in the interest of their client, the decision to breach this duty would be up to the sole discretion of the individual in question. In cases where the exchanged information may used to provide evidence against the client, the lawyer is compelled to disclose the truth to the courts/law enforcement.

But in general, under what situation would compel someone to self-represent?

  • A person is never compelled to represent themselves in court, unless they are indigent and cannot claim a 6th Amendment right to counsel, as in a civil case, if they wish to pursue one. Is that what you are looking for?
    – user6726
    Dec 29, 2017 at 1:28
  • @user6726 I didn’t know about you said, thanks for the info. But no, my line of query is to determine under what circumstances would a defendant forgo either private or a publicity appointed counsel.
    – Bluebird
    Dec 29, 2017 at 1:59
  • "A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client". Dec 30, 2017 at 22:59

4 Answers 4


If a defendant has committed a crime, they would choose to self-represent to ensure that no one else would know about the circumstances of their crime. Although lawyers are ethically bound to not disclose information that would not be in the interest of their client, the decision to breach this duty would be up to the sole discretion of the individual in question. In cases where the exchanged information may used to provide evidence against the client, the lawyer is compelled to disclose the truth to the courts/law enforcement.

This is deeply misguided.

Criminal defense lawyers usually represent people who are guilty and there is no ethical problem with doing so, nor does this mean that the lawyer will disclose privileged information that is prejudicial to the defendant in the course of the representation.

The notion that a lawyer would be compelled to testify against his client to the courts/law enforcement is simply not how the system works.

It is true that a lawyer cannot ethically put you on the stand to offer testimony when the lawyer knows that your testimony to the court will be an outright flat lie, and that this lie is your strategy to prevail in your defense, but that is the sole meaningful limitation on what a lawyer can do for you.

However, I can't think of a single instance, in which a desire to defend yourself at trial with a lie has caused someone to represent themselves. Usually, someone with that kind of motive will simply lie to their lawyer as well.

It never makes sense to represent yourself if you are innocent and want to be acquitted of the charges against you.

But, keep in mind that this is a small subset of all criminal defendants. Criminal defendants are overwhelmingly guilty of something. Usually, a criminal defense lawyer works to either exploit prosecution mistakes or lack of knowledge that prevent the prosecution from proving that guilt, or work to make sure that the defendant is not convicted of a more serious crime than the one committed, and/or work to see to it that their client does not receive an unnecessarily harsh sentence when alternatives are available.

In real life, people represent usually themselves, either because they are denied access to counsel (which can be done in a criminal cases where the prosecutor waives the right to seek incarceration as a sentence), or because they are "crazy".

Many people who represent themselves in a criminal cases do so because they want to proudly claim that they committed the crime as a means of obtaining of forum for public recognition of what they believe was righteous action even if this could lead to their death. Many terrorists, domestic and foreign, fall into this category. For example, the fellow committed a massacre at a Colorado abortion clinic tried to do this (if I recall correctly, he was later found incompetent to face a trial and has been committed to a mental institution until he becomes competent, if ever).

Other people represent themselves out of a strongly felt guilt that they feel a moral duty to confess to, even if this means that they will face severe punishment for doing so. One subset of this group of people are people known as "death penalty volunteers" who try to get sentenced to death and try to waive all appeals and post-trial review.

Sometimes they also plead guilty in the belief (often, but not always, inaccurate) that their swift guilty plea when they aren't actually guilty will protect someone else whom they know to be actually guilty.

Other people represent themselves because they have deeply held, but paranoid and inaccurate views about the legal system such as members of the "Sovereign Citizens Movement" who think that if they say the "magic words" that they cannot be convicted and that lawyers are a part of a conspiracy designed to prevent them from doing so.

Another situation that comes up is when an affluent person who is not entitled to a public defender as a result, chooses to represent themselves, usually with respect to a fairly minor charge like a traffic violation that carries a risk for a short term of incarceration, to save money. But, this is rarely a wise choice.

But, unless you plan on pleading guilty or being found guilty at trial, self-representation does not make sense, and even if you plan on pleading guilty, a lawyer is usually worth it. For example, even if the direct consequence of a guilty plea is minor, the collateral consequences of that conviction (e.g. loss of eligibility to work in certain jobs and/or deportation and/or loss of a right to own a firearm) may be consequential and something that a non-lawyer would not realize was happening. Or, maybe you think you are guilty of crime X so there is no point in fighting the charges, but actually, the language of that statute has been defined in a manner that means you are really only guilty of less serious crime Y.


I'm in Canada, so some of this may be different in other countries. According to a 2013 study, the most common reasons why people have self-represented are the following:

  1. Finances (p. 38): either they had but could no longer afford counsel, or they could not afford counsel to begin with. This is the most common reason.
  2. Problems with counsel (p. 44): either they "fired" their lawyer, or their lawyer quit.
  3. Preference (p. 48): they deemed the matter to be simple, or they had confidence in their own abilities.

I would argue that if you can't afford a lawyer to represent you, that is certainly a compelling argument to self-represent!

  • This is the reason most people self-represent in civil cases, but there is a constitutional right to representation if you cannot afford it in the U.S. in criminal cases (and in termination of parental rights cases).
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 31, 2017 at 1:49
  • There have been several cases where a criminal case had an accused who could not get legal aid and had to get the courts to order defence counsel: R v Rowbotham, 1988 CanLII 147 (ON CA), with a particularly sad one where the accused were mentally handicapped and on fixed income R. v Smart, 2014 ABPC 175 (CanLII)
    – ErikF
    Dec 31, 2017 at 3:47

...under what situation would compel someone to self-represent?

Your grammar appears to be incorrect; I think what you intended to write is "feel compelled."

Compel (Collins English Dictionary) means to force or constrain, as to do something or to get or bring about by force. No court compels or forces an individual to self-represent in a criminal proceeding; it's a choice by that individual.

On the other hand, if one feels compelled (Collins English Dictionary) to do something, you feel that you must do it, because it is the right thing to do. i.e., Dickens felt compelled to return to the stage for a final goodbye.

What would make a defendant feel compelled to represent themselves in a criminal procedding?

A sense of thinking an attorney cannot help or would not be a true advocate; a sense of paranoia about the justice system; an inflated sense of one's intelligence and abilities; feelings of combativeness about the charges lodged against oneself; possibly a sense of hopelessness about the impending finding of guilt; maybe even a sense of fun about the learning experience.

  • There is also no right to a public defender is you are affluent, and if you have little prospect for success and the stakes are not high, avoiding the expense of a lawyer and "taking your licks" can be a rational strategy.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 29, 2017 at 13:47
  • 1
    It's not just civil cases where money might be an issue. In my state, you must pay for your public defender in a criminal case if you are capable (and are found guilty.) But what the court thinks you are capable of paying and what you think you are capable of paying might not match.
    – D M
    Dec 29, 2017 at 19:42
  • Good points; I removed the line about civil cases and paying, as it's kind of superfluous to the rest of my answer. Dec 31, 2017 at 4:41

One might consider choosing to self-represent:

  1. If the charges are not terribly severe (you don't stand to lose that much, compared to the benefits of self-representing).

  2. If you honestly are 100% innocent of the charges.

  3. You are not willing under any circumstances to accept any plea bargains, or to make any plea less than "not guilty" ;

  4. You expect that a defense attorney will most likely insist or pressure you into a plea bargain, based on historical evidence showing that they usually do in your community, on lesser charges ;

  5. You are confident that the defense attorney does not share belief in your innocence, since they were not eyewitnesses in the case and therefore have no clue what really happened, and are predisposed to believe that most people lie to get out of trouble. In other words you believe, based on their established history of plea bargaining cases, that you will probably be treated as if you are guilty already.

  6. You are confident that the defense attorney, having only hearsay knowledge of the case, cannot or will not present as convincing or as thorough an argument for your innocence, as you could without their help.

Because you know that your message to the judge and jury (if the case proceeds that far) will be straight from your own innocent heart. Remember, you alone are passionately convinced of your innocence.

Also remember that most judges are human beings with feelings and better than average intelligence, who respond quite fairly to honest testimony. Besides, they don't want to waste court time on cases that may legitimately end up in appeals.

  1. You are willing to learn and abide by the rules of court, including making all of the necessary motions you will need for your case.

  2. You know your rights, or are willing to research them.

  3. You are able to keep your ego in check, and have unshakable faith in Justice, regardless of the outcome.

Also may I point out that the hypothetical reason for self-representing, implicitly offered as possibly the only rational answer, included in the question, (paraphrasing, as I understood it):

That the intent most likely would be to cover up the defendant's presumed guilt; and further presuming that guilty criminal defendants are typically very truthful with their defense attorneys especially --

-- is sadly prejudiced. I would not want anyone with such subjective attitudes to serve as judge or jury in any cases at all.

  • 1
    Innocence is a horrible reason to represent yourself and almost assures your conviction.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 29, 2017 at 13:13
  • So they say. And as you have admitted, it's not true in every case. I didn't recommend self-representing in every case, anyway.
    – Bread
    Dec 29, 2017 at 13:24
  • 6
    There is no case where an innocent person is ever well advised to try to represent themselves in a criminal case when they have the option of having counsel instead. If you are guilty, the evidence against you is overwhelming, you plan on pleading guilty, and don't have a right to counsel because you are affluent, self-representing could be a choice with little downside, but that is pretty much the only circumstance when it makes sense. Someone who is "100% innocent of the charges" should never consider self-representing.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 29, 2017 at 13:38

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .