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Sunday, October 14, 2012

"Ask the Judge" Column continues in La Prensa of SA, 10-14

Ask the Judge: Pro Se Trials by Jury
By Judge Steve Walker

In Pct. 2 we are experiencing more and more plaintiffs & defendants who choose to represent themselves in the courtroom to save attorney’s fees in a jury trial. Unfortunately hiring a lawyer is expensive or cost prohibitive for many who come to court.

On the other hand, not having that legal representation in most cases is not the wisest plan to insure that you will win your case in the courtroom. That is especially true if you are being sued for thousands of dollars or you are the one filing the lawsuit and representing yourself.

Referencing the Small Claims docket for example, when one side has hired a lawyer, it puts the legally unrepresented side at a decidedly severe disadvantage. While it is always acceptable to represent yourself in Justice of the Peace Court on any docket, it handicaps you when you don’t have someone standing in your behalf and vigorously representing you with knowledge of the law.

Someone who practices law on an ongoing basis can make your life miserable in a courtroom and prevent you from effectively proving you case or win you case if they represent you.  

Unless you diligently research the laws pertaining to your case and you are quick on your feet, you face an uphill battle.

You can still win your case, but it is difficult. It happens on occasion. If you go into a jury trial and the other side doesn’t have legal counsel either, at least you level the playing field somewhat. Both sides however, must follow rules of procedure in the courtroom.

Court procedure in a jury trial is tricky when you are not an attorney. The trial begins with the case being called by the judge. Ex: Joseph Jones vs. Ed Cervantes. Once the case is called, the Judge then swears in the 25-30 potential jurors who show up for jury duty.

Once completed, the plaintiff, followed in turn by the defendant begins directing questions to the jurors during what is called “voir dire.” Usually general questions like, “Can you be fair in hearing the case?” or “is there anybody here who feels they cannot be objective?” and so on are appropriate. Sometimes the plaintiff/defendant will ask directed questions to specific jurors for a variety of reasons.

After both sides have had an opportunity to ask the jurors basic questions, the first six jurors not challenged by either side will sit on the jury.

After the jury is sworn in, each side may make an opening statement explaining what they hope to prove or disprove.

Both sides call witnesses if they have any and may cross-examine the other side’s witnesses. Questioning witnesses is optional and is not required. Many times it is only the plaintiff and defendant that testify.

After each side is allowed a closing statement, the jury is charged to render a verdict. It is then up to the jury the final outcome.

Remember although Pro Se plaintiffs/defendants do win in court on occasion, it is more difficult without an attorney.

Lastly as always, if you are due in court, be sure to show up to court on time. It is in everyone’s best interest.

Justice of the Peace, Pct. 2 Steve Walker is a Vietnam Veteran and a former Journalist.

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