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Massachusetts Law About Self-Represented Litigants

Self-Represented is often referred to as Pro Se or Unrepresented. All three have the same meaning.

Right to Self-Representation

Mass. Constitution Article XII: "...And every subject shall have a right to produce all proofs, that may be favorable to him; to meet the witnesses against him face to face, and to be fully heard in his defence by himself, or his council at his election..."

Comm. v. Mott, 2 Mass. App. Ct. 47 (1974). "We think the language of article 12 of the Declaration of Rights is unambiguous as to the existence of the right within the Commonwealth ...We think, however, that the right to conduct one's own defense is not wholly unqualified..."

Limited Assistance Representation

Limited Assistance Representation, Mass. Court System. Massachusetts courts may allow attorneys to assist self-represented litigants with selected documents or appearances without taking on full representation. Includes links information, lists of qualified attorneys, and more for each court department.

Selected Case Law

Turner v. Rogers, 564 US __, 131 S.Ct. 2507 (2011). While the Due Process Clause does not require the provision of counsel in a civil contempt case for failure to pay child support when the opposing parent is not represented by counsel, the court should provide "alternative procedural safeguards," such as "adequate notice of the importance of ability to pay, fair opportunity to present, and to dispute, relevant information, and court findings."

Resources FOR the Self-Represented

Before Asking for Help, Mass. Courty System. "This booklet contains a list of some of the things the court staff can and cannot do for you." Clarifies the role of court staff in assisting pro se litigants.

Before Going Into Court, Mass. Court System. Written for the self-represented, "This booklet contains ten helpful tips about how to conduct yourself in court. Please read them carefully before entering the courtroom."

Appeals Court Frequently Asked Questions, Mass. Appeals Court. In a question and answer format, provides essential information on how to file an appeal in both civil and criminal cases. Covers everything from the notice of appeal to how long to expect to wait for a decision. Great resource!

Checklist for Preparation of Brief and Appendix, Mass. Appeals Court. Lists all necessary components with references to court rules for each.

Guide for People Appearing Without a Lawyer (Pro Se), Division of Administrative Law Appeals (DALA) If you are representing yourself in one of DALA's general jurisdiction matters (retirement, fair labor wage and hour, Department of Public Health EMT or Nurse Aide matters, Board or Registration in Medicine, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, for examples). See also "Practicing at DALA".

A Guide for the Pro Se Filer, US Bankruptcy Court, District of Mass., Feb. 2007. This 76-page manual is designed for the person filing for bankruptcy without an attorney. Includes detailed descriptions of the process, records necessary, forms to file, fees, and much more.

How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers, American Association of Law Libraries, 2009. Guide includes getting started, where to go, what to look at, and when to stop (often the hardest part of legal research!).

If a Creditor Takes you to Court for Unpaid Bills, Mass. Legal Help, June 2012. Covers everything you need to know about being sued for debts, with all the steps in the process.

Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law, Nolo, 2012. The well-respected book in electronic format, covers finding and using primary and secondary law. Requires Library Card for access.

Limited Assistance Representation, Mass. Court System. Massachusetts courts may allow attorneys to assist self-represented litigants with selected documents or appearances without taking on full representation.

Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, Nolo, 2013. Includes information on starting your case, pretrial procedures, motions, opening statement, cross examination and more. Requires Library Card for access.

Representing Yourself in a Civil Case: Things to Consider When Going to Court, Mass. Trial Court. "This book is for people who are considering representing themselves in a civil case in a Massachusetts trial court. It is intended to provide an overview of the court process in a civil case and direct you to resources."

Requesting an Order for Your Spouse to Help Pay for Your Attorney (in a divorce matter), Mass. Legal Help. All the necessary forms and instructions for Pro Se divorcees to motion the court for attorney fees so they can hire an attorney. Created by Chief Justice Dunphey and the Pro Se Coordinator of the Probate Courts.

Indigency Forms: When you can't afford court fees

Indigency Forms

Resources ABOUT the Self-Represented

Addressing the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants in Our Courts, Supreme Judicial Court Steering Committee on Self-Represented Litigants, Nov. 21, 2008. The report focuses on six areas: (1) expanding access to legal representation ; (2) developing judicial guidelines and training programs ; (3) developing a resource and referral guide for self-represented litigants; (4) creating a handbook written by and for court staff that sets out principles for distinguishing legal information from legal advice; (5) investigating data collection methods; and (6) investigating physical and programmatic improvements that would make our courthouses more "user friendly."

The Implications of Turner v. Rogers, Richard Zorza, The Judges' Journal, Volume 50, Number 4, Fall 2011. Suggests best practices for judges in handling cases involving self-represented litigants, with a great deal of practical advice.

Judicial Guidelines for Civil Hearings Involving Self-Represented Litigants, Mass. Trial Court. "While the legal and ethical constraints upon the courts and the judiciary, such as those contained in the Code of Judicial Conduct, apply with equal force to cases involving self-represented litigants, judges have broad discretion within these boundaries. These guidelines have been developed to assist judges in recognizing the areas in which they have discretion and to assist them in the exercise of that discretion."

Pro Se Litigants: The Challenge of the Future, Mass. Probate and Family Court Pro Se Committee Report, 1997. This 85-page report focuses on the needs of those appearing in Probate and Family Courts. Includes simplified domestic relations process, rules and legislation, education and information, funding and recommendations. The SJC has created a Steering Committee on Unrepresented Litigants, which hopes to issue a more current and comprehensive report on self-representations in Massachusetts.

Reaching Out to Self Represented Litigants through Virtual Reference and Education, National Center for State Courts, 2004. "Public law libraries are... an increasingly critical resource for self-represented litigants engaged in the judicial process. The role of the public courthouse library must not be overlooked as a legitimate gateway to an individual's access to justice."

Report of the Boston Bar Association Task Force on Unrepresented Litigants, Boston Bar, 1998. Produced at about the same time as the Probate and Family Court report, above, this one takes a more global approach and includes District Court, Housing Court, Superior Court and Appellate Courts. Recommendations include increasing the availability of attorneys, more accessible courthouses, more direct assistance from courthouse staff, and increased use of alternative dispute resolution.

Serving the Self-Represented Litigant: A Guide by and for Massachusetts Court Staff, June 2010. Includes both general information for all court staff, and specific advice for employees in each court department.

Toward Best Practices in Complex Self-Represented Cases, Richard Zorza, The Judges' Journal, Volume 51, Number 1, Winter 2012. Provides guidance for judges in cases in which only one party has counsel, there are "atypical" self-represented litigants (such as militant or mentally ill), or where the case itself is complex.