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Legal Information

Court System Basics

Why do we have a Preparing for Court – By Yourself section?

A high percentage of domestic violence survivors face the court system on their own. The court process can be very challenging, even for those who have experience in court. Some survivors choose not to seek help from the court at all because the court process intimidates them, they don’t understand the laws, or they fear the unknown. However, not going to court may mean missing out on life-changing protections and other outcomes that could improve a survivor’s situation. We designed this section to help people who have no court experience, or very little experience with the court system, navigate what can be a very complicated process. Knowledge is power, and when you know what to expect and have some tools you can use when involved in litigation with an abusive partner, you could have a better chance of getting a favorable outcome.

The laws of each state can vary greatly in some ways and might be very similar in other ways. We tried to make this section as general as possible so that a person in any state or territory might benefit from it. If you still have questions about your case after reading this section, we provide legal information and referrals on our Email Hotline.

What does it mean to be a pro se litigant?

A pro se litigant, or self-represented litigant, is someone who does not have a lawyer to represent him/her in a court case. Some court cases are straightforward and you may be able to get through the process without a lawyer representing you. Small claims court, for example, is designed with simplified procedures and requirements so that you should be able to present your claim to the court without a lawyer. Other cases, though, are more complex and might require motions, discovery, or other legal procedures to get through them successfully. Divorce cases can fall into this category if there are children, property, assets, or other issues that need to be resolved. Because divorces can be complicated and involve important legal rights, it might be worthwhile to consult with a lawyer if you are thinking that you might file for divorce. You can find information about free and paid lawyers on our Finding a Lawyer page.

Why does it matter if I do or don’t have a lawyer?

A lawyer’s knowledge of the laws and rules of evidence can be very important when navigating the court process. A lawyer should be able to explain what you have to prove in your case to get the outcome that you want, warn you of potential pitfalls, and discuss the probability of your success, among other things. Therefore, if you are able to get a lawyer, preferably one who is knowledgeable about domestic violence, you should consider working with a lawyer for your legal case.

Our Choosing and Working with a Lawyer page has tips on questions you can ask a lawyer during your first meeting to see if the lawyer would be a good fit for your case. However, if you are getting a lawyer from a non-profit organization or if the court appoints a lawyer, you may not have the luxury of interviewing multiple lawyers to find one who is a good fit; you may have to work with whoever is assigned to you.

Sadly, the reality is that many people cannot afford a lawyer to represent them and legal services organizations still do not have the resources they need to represent everyone who applies for their services. If you are not fortunate enough to be able to get a lawyer to represent you, either free or paid, you should strongly consider at least consulting with one before deciding on a course of action in your case. In addition to legal services organizations, there are also legal referral services operated mostly by state bar associations that usually offer low-cost initial consultations with a lawyer. You can find information about free and paid lawyers on our Finding a Lawyer page.

If I represent myself in court, how will the judge treat me?

You are generally allowed to represent yourself in court if you so choose, except in some very limited circumstances. If you do choose to represent yourself in court some judges may be more lenient with you but others may hold you to the same standards as a lawyer during your court case and might even have unintentional bias against self-represented litigants. In other words, the judge may expect you to know:

  • what the purpose of the different court appearances and conferences are in your particular case;
  • whether or not discovery is allowed;
  • what motions may be filed;
  • how to conduct a trial in general and, specifically, how to introduce evidence, question witnesses, and object to unfavorable evidence.

This may sound like a lot to take in, but you can review the other pages in this Preparing for Court – By Yourself section for basics on these areas of trial practice. Most states also have materials for self-represented litigants on their court websites and some might even have self-help centers in the courthouse where you can go to get brief advice or help with filling out court forms.

Some cases are especially complicated and involve important legal rights. In those cases, it is important to have a lawyer. If any of the following are issues in your case, then you should strongly consider hiring a lawyer to help you, if possible:

  • parental kidnapping;
  • contested divorce;
  • contested custody;
  • immigration; or
  • the other party has a lawyer.

Ways to Educate Yourself

In addition to reading your state’s rules of evidence, you may want to do additional research to prepare for your case. Here are some ideas on how to proceed:

  • Go to a law library, either at the courthouse or at a local law school. Many courthouses have libraries, which will have other cases that have been decided (known as “case law”), statutes, and secondary source materials. A law librarian may be able to help you in your research.
  • See if your courthouse has an office for the self-represented (“pro se” litigants). These offices are designed to provide information, instruction, and forms for people who are representing themselves in court.
  • Look for online tools that have access to case law or articles on legal topics, such as Google Scholar (WomensLaw.org does not endorse the services of Google Scholar – we provide this information for your knowledge only).