How to sue without a lawyer

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- You've probably seen actors play lawyers on television, but in real life, it's not that easy.

With that said, there are lots of cases where people can't afford an attorney, or it's just not worth it to hire one.

So how can you do it yourself? WREG uncovers a little known law that could help you win your case!

"The courthouse is an open, public space," said Matthew Jones of Memphis Area Legal Services.

Yet, Karl Rivers said he feels like a stranger when he's inside the building at 140 Adams.

"It's very, very frustrating."

WREG met Rivers at a free, weekly legal clinic held at the courthouse.

Rivers said, "I've been down here four times dealing with this court case."

A local roofing company sued Rivers over a repair bill.

Rivers told WREG the problems began years ago, not with the roofer, but with his satellite company.

Rivers said the satellite dish caused problems, which led to roof damage. He said he submitted a claim through Direct TV, his satellite provider at the time, and the company paid.

Rivers showed WREG paperwork from the claim.

However, he said some time later, he ended up with water damage. Rivers said he tried to go through Direct TV again, because he felt like the equipment wasn't secured properly after the initial repairs.

Rivers said he ended up using his homeowner's insurance.

He had Brian Elder Roofing fixed the roof and now he owes the company the balance of what the insurance didn't cover.

"I've been making payments," said Rivers.

Those payments however, haven't covered all the costs.

Rivers is currently on medical leave from his job, so he toldWREG getting to the courthouse is hard enough, let alone learning to navigate the court system.

He said the roofing company's attorney actually suggested he get some help which is why he attended the clinic.

"Because you do need the legalese, the legal mind and the correct wording to use."

Jones, who serves as the Director of Advocacy and General Counsel for MALSI, told WREG when it comes to working without an attorney, "It can be very difficult."

But he also said, "It can be done."

"There are some simple rules to follow that could help you either, one, file a case if you need to, or number two, defend a case that you're being sued."

So what is the secret to success if have to be your own lawyer?

Let's say you're the plaintiff, planning to sue someone else.

"The biggest hurdle that people have as pro se litigants, pro se meaning without an attorney, pro se litigants run into what's called the hearsay rule."

Hearsay might be a fancy term you've heard on your favorite court drama.

Jones said don't let it intimidate you, think of it as "they say."

"So hearsay, 'they say,' that's no good in court."

Jones said you need a witness, someone to testify, even about documents.

However, there is a way around that.

"This is a very underutilized statute, law."

Jones is referring to a little known law that allows a plaintiff in a repair case under $1,000 to attach proof of payments and make reference to it when he or she files the case.

"All you have to do is show up in court and admit that into evidence, so you don't need a witness there for that."

"Could that be the one thing that leads me to possibly winning my case?" asked WREG.


Now, let's say you're a defendant and someone is suing you.

Jones said first, don't ignore your court dates and when you show up, "Don't admit to anything that you haven't seen."

There's even a form defendants can fill out called a "Sworn Denial".

"Filing the piece of paper can really help you put the plaintiff to their burden."

Jones said remember that hearsay rule, now you're using it to your advantage.

"You haven't made them bring a witness to show you any documents and you don't know that their accounting is right. Make them prove their case."

Jones added,"Your taxes pay for that court to operate. I just say be diligent and stand up for your rights."

That's exactly what Rivers is trying to do. He said he just wishes he had a little help throughout the process.

"I'm doing the best that I can with what I have."

The case against Rivers went to trial Tuesday, May 2nd. The judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff and granted a judgement in the amount the roofing company requested.

WREG did find out that defendants like Rivers have an opportunity to pay a judgement in installments.

This would provide more time to make the payments.

Click here for more information on filing or defending a case without an attorney

Free Legal Clinics:

Every Thursday, 1:00-4:00 p.m.

140 Adams, Room 134

Every Second Saturday of the Month, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Benjamin Hooks Library