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Date Modified: September 9, 2023

Unless you’re handling a claim in a small claims court against you, going without an attorney and defending yourself can be risky. If you have no other option but to represent yourself, you must follow the court procedures and laws pertaining to your case. Ehline Law and our personal injury attorneys understand how stressful it can be to represent yourself in court, which is why we’ve provided a comprehensive guide on representing and protecting yourself against civil action.

  • Video Transcript - How Can I Protect Myself Against a Civil Action?

    Video Transcript - How Can I Protect Myself Against a Civil Action?

    "0:00 How can I protect myself against a civil

    0:02 action? The best ways to protect yourself

    0:05 against a civil action, I guess basically

    0:08 would be to bury yourself in a cave

    0:10 somewhere there really is no way to

    0:11 really protect yourself against a civil

    0:13 action. Anyone can sue for anything but

    0:16 the best way to try and avoid it is to

    0:18 behave and carry yourself in such a way

    0:22 so as not to cause harm to others to

    0:24 simply be truthful in all your dealings

    0:26 with others not lie not deceive people

    0:30 and simply be a good person. In a

    0:33 nutshell, this is the best way to avoid

    0:35 being sued for anything in the best way

    0:37 to avoid congestion in our courthouses. [Music]"

Do You Need an Attorney?

The United States legal system allows you to represent yourself in civil court. However, deciding whether you want to represent yourself or let an attorney defend the lawsuit may be necessary, depending on the case. For minor cases, such as small claims lawsuits, seeking legal assistance from an attorney may not be necessary.

Small claims court resolves minor claims that typically range between $1,000 and $5,000 in damages. However, in some cases, it can go up to $10,000, depending on the state and the type of claimant. Small claims court is a quick and inexpensive way of resolving minor disputes. Cases that are typically heard in small claims court involve landlord-tenant disputes, minor car accidents, and merchandise refunds, among others.

Even if you believe that an attorney may not be necessary, there is no harm in consulting an experienced attorney for legal advice. Most personal injury attorneys offer a free consultation which you can use to your advantage and learn more about your case and legal options. Representing claims in small claims court may not be as challenging as civil lawsuits, and without an experienced attorney, you may find yourself in deep legal trouble. An attorney can protect your rights, ensure you follow the legal process within the dates provided, and even respond to the lawsuit filed against you by the plaintiff.

What If You Decide to Represent Yourself?

Whether it is a small claims court, District Court, or the Supreme Court, you have the right to represent yourself in a lawsuit. However, it is essential to note that the court will hold you to the same standards as it would an attorney. If you decide to represent yourself legally, you must understand the legal terms and process of a civil lawsuit. Also, keep in mind that you can hire an attorney at any stage of the legal process.

How you choose to handle your defense against the opposing party depends on your case and the nature of the lawsuit. However, the process generally involves the following steps. The first stage in a lawsuit is the service of process. A plaintiff will file a complaint with the court. The Constitution does not allow courts to exercise jurisdiction over defendants unless they’ve been properly notified of the legal proceedings against them. Due to this, the court will hand the plaintiff a summons, which is a court authority document that tells the defendant that the plaintiff has sued them and they must take legal action.

In the complaint, the plaintiff mentions their side of the facts and outlines the law to support their claim. It also notes the damages the plaintiff seeks, whether monetary compensation, injunction, or any other legal remedy. The plaintiff must serve you, the defendant, the legal documents (copy of the complaint and the summons) within a specific time frame. When you receive legal documents, you must read them carefully. The copy of the complaint will tell you why the plaintiff is bringing a civil action against you and other details, while the summons will guide you on the next set of instructions you must follow.

Summons and Complaint

When you receive the copy of the complaint and the summons, you typically have 30 days to respond with an answer. However, the number of days may vary depending on the court, the lawsuit’s nature, or the case’s legal issues. The summons will guide you on such details. If you do not respond within the mentioned time frame, the plaintiff may request a default judgment against you. A default judgment is when the court rules in favor of the plaintiff and awards damages or other legal remedies requested in the complaint.

When writing an answer, you must respond to each paragraph of the complaint or the legal claims made in the lawsuit. In most cases, the defendant must also include affirmative defenses; these are laws that the defense can use to their advantage. If you’re required to mention affirmative defenses, you must research the laws to support your defense. Failing to mention affirmative defenses would bar you from using that law as a defense going forward.

Statute of Limitations Problems?

For example, if the plaintiff serves you a lawsuit after two years post-accident. You, as the defendant, can use the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense that states that a plaintiff loses their legal rights if they don’t pursue legal action within two years for a personal injury claim. You may also file a motion to dismiss, quash, or strike instead of responding with an appropriate answer. These motions must be filed with the court mentioned on the service papers, and it prevents a default judgment against you. A motion to dismiss asks the judge to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit against you, and there could be many reasons for filing such a motion, including lack of legal claim or jurisdiction. Personal and subject matter jurisdiction are the two most common types of jurisdiction.

Personal Jurisdiction?

When you file a motion claiming lack of personal jurisdiction, it means that the court does not have authority over the plaintiff and the defendant. When you file a motion claiming lack of subject matter jurisdiction, it means that the court does not have the authority to hear the lawsuit. An experienced attorney can guide you on which motion is appropriate for you to file with the court.

Another defense you may be able to use is the motion to quash, which asks the court to nullify the service of summons. Without proper service of summons, the lawsuit cannot continue, and if the plaintiff has not followed the legal process, you can request the court to dismiss the case. Without proper documents submitted by the plaintiff in court, the court will not continue the legal process.

You may also be able to use the motion to strike, which requests the court to remove certain evidence or document from the court records that may be scandalous, immaterial, or redundant. You can suppress evidence that the plaintiff collected in a way that violated your constitutional rights. You may consider counter-suing the plaintiff if none of the defenses apply to the case. Any defendant filing a lawsuit against the plaintiff is typically known as a counterclaim, and you must include it in your written answer. Generally, there are two types of counterclaims: compulsory and permissive counterclaim.  A compulsory counterclaim is when a defendant files in response to the allegations made in the complaint. It will nullify the plaintiff’s complaint if they can successfully defend the counterclaim.

A permissive counterclaim is when a defendant sues the plaintiff over other matters unrelated to the plaintiff’s claims. It allows all parties to resolve their disputes in a single lawsuit. If you’re unsure whether to counterclaim or choose any other defense, you must speak to an experienced attorney for legal guidance. In some cases, the courts will grant leniency to those without legal representation in the courtroom by guiding them during proceedings, but they will not provide legal advice. You must file the written documents and evidence with the court and send a copy to the plaintiff.

What Are the Risks and Tips for Legally Representing Yourself in Court?

There are certain risks of going into court without legal representation and some tips you should follow.

Risks of Representing Yourself

One of the biggest risks of legally representing yourself is to lose the case. You may be unable to follow the legal procedures or defend yourself from the claims made by the plaintiff, leading to a default judgment against you. If you get to trial, you may not be able to establish your defense, causing you to lose your case. In the event that you lose, the judge may ask you to pay the other side’s legal fees in addition to the compensatory damages.

Tips for Representing Yourself

If you choose to represent yourself in the case, here are some tips you should follow:

  • Research the laws that apply to your case.
  • Follow the instructions in the summons.
  • Make sure you file an answer promptly.
  • Fill out your forms correctly.
  • All documents filed in court must be easy to read.
  • Reach the courthouse early and attend the court hearing.
  • Missing a court date can result in a default judgment.
  • Bring your file containing all legal documents to the court.
  • Bring witnesses and evidence.
  • Arrange for an interpreter for the witnesses if needed.
  • Do not bring your children to court. Arrange for child care instead.
  • Practice your statements and arguments.
  • Follow the local court rules and conduct.

One of the main reasons defendants choose to represent themselves is that they do not have the financial resources to hire an attorney. However, you can reach out to American Bar Association or your state bar association for more information or contact legal aid in the location where the plaintiff filed the case.

Asset Protection in a Civil Lawsuit

Before the lawsuit begins, you can use certain strategies to protect your assets. The first step is to invest in an umbrella liability insurance policy which will typically pay for the injuries from a car accident or any damages to your personal property. It will not protect your personal assets if someone files a lawsuit against your business. If you’re self-employed or run a business, one of the common ways of protecting yourself from any civil action involves incorporating the business as a limited liability. It protects your family assets if someone decides to sue the business and even allows you to file for bankruptcy.

You may consider protecting your assets through an asset protection trust. However, establishing and maintaining a trust can be expensive, and a trust is binding, meaning you cannot simply request to take your money back.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Law to Protect Civil Action Rights

You can use many legal resources to your advantage, but nothing can replace an attorney’s experience and legal know-how. Your chances of securing compensation in a personal injury case are much higher with legal representation than without one. If you suffered injuries in an accident that was not your fault, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation, as you may be eligible for compensation.

Michael Ehline is an inactive U.S. Marine and world-famous legal historian. Michael helped draft the Cruise Ship Safety Act and has won some of U.S. history’s largest motorcycle accident settlements. Together with his legal team, Michael and the Ehline Law Firm collect damages on behalf of clients.
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Michael Ehline

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