What happens when a person represents himself in court?

Hitler and the other Bier Hall Putsch defendants
Hitler and the other Bier Hall Putsch defendants









Writing about legal fiction doesn’t always mean the focus has to be on lawyers.

Some very interesting things happen when a person decides he will handle his case by himself. This usually happens in one of two situations.

First is the criminal case where the accused either has a falling out with his lawyers, or just wants to go it alone.  There have been many high-profile cases where this has happened. In a serious criminal case where the defendant faces a long prison term, or even the death penalty, the judge is hesitant to let the accused act as his own lawyer because the notion of a lay person going to battle against a team of trained lawyers for the prosecution looks like a stacked deck against the accused.

The judge in this scenario knows that this sort of dynamic at trial can result in mistakes that may make an appeals court take a hard look at the courtroom procedure to ensure that the defendant received a fair trial.  The judge would much rather have highly proficient lawyers on both sides of the case.  In order to protect the defendant the judge may have to do things he wouldn’t ordinarily do.  For instance, he may have to coach the defendant or instruct him about mistakes he is about to make.  If he does this once, he had better do it every time something comes up.  That’s not his job, he is supposed to be the umpire, not the coach calling the plays.

A defendant that represents himself in a trial where the stakes are so high, however, is usually someone who wants to  make a statement.  In a sense, he believes he is above the law, or wants to make a martyr of himself to prove a point.  Probably the most famous instance of this is Hitler’s trial following the Bier Hall Putsch.

I used this technique in the third book of The Revelation Trilogy, which will be out later this year.

The other common setting where a person represents himself is in small claims court.  This usually involves a minor offense like a speeding ticket or a small monetary claim where a citizen is trying to collect a debt or challenge the validity of one.

Just because the stakes are low doesn’t mean the trial can’t heat up.

Imagine a guy cross-examining a state trooper about how the trooper could possibly have clocked him doing seventy in a sixty-five.

Trials like that can turn into full blown combat.

So, as you think about writing courtroom scenes give some thought to pitting a lay person against a team of prosecutors, or two lay people going to war over a matter of principle where the main thing at stake is somebody’s pride.


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