Tennessee Courts will give Pro Se Litigants “Some Leeway,” But Not Much

Some of the hardest trials to handle aren’t when there’s a good attorney on the other side. Instead, the toughest cases can be when there’s a non-attorney on the other side, meaning the other party is representing himself.  In the legal world, this is called “pro se” representation.

With a lawyer on the other side, there’s an expectation that they know the rules of civil procedure, the local rules, and the relevant law. As a result, you can expect that you will be able to cut to the chase and narrow the issues.

With a pro se litigant, everything could be at issue and, worse, a pro se party probably doesn’t know the rules of the court, meaning objection deadlines will be missed and all other types of procedural missteps can occur. This places the lawyer and the Judge in a strange situation–do you hold the pro se litigant to same standards as a party who goes to the trouble of hiring a lawyer? Shouldn’t they  be held to that standard?

A fairly recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case (click here to review) considered that issue in a dispute where a property owner was fighting a foreclosing creditor. The Court noted that “there are a multitude of problems with Defendant’s brief,” including a complete failure to comply with the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure.  The Court called the pro se filing “a rambling and, at times, incoherent brief.”

The Court went on to say it “must not excuse pro se litigants from complying with the same substantive and procedural rules that represented parties are expected to observe.” Young v. Barrow, 130 S.W.3d 59, 63 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003). “It is well-settled that, ‘[w]hile a party who chooses to represent himself or herself is entitled to the fair and equal treatment of the courts, [p]ro se litigants are not . . . entitled to shift the burden of litigating their case[s] to the courts.’” Chiozza v. Chiozza, 315 S.W.3d 482, 487 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2009). However, “[t]he courts give pro se litigants who are untrained in the law a certain amount of leeway in drafting their pleadings and briefs.” Young, 130 S.W.3d at 63.

This is good text to remember the next time a person appears on their own behalf in a matter. This frequently happens in debt collection cases for the obvious reason: if a person can’t pay their bills, then how can they afford to hire a lawyer.

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