How to Represent Yourself in Court

Pro se NMIF YOU DON'T HAVE A LAWYER

Information for Self-Represented Litigants (SRL)

The information contained here is offered to help you represent yourself in the District Court if you do not have a lawyer. The information offered here is NOT legal advice and may not apply to every situation. It is STRONGLY recommended that you consult with a lawyer before making decisions or taking actions in your case.

If you are the Petitioner, Plaintiff, Respondent, or Defendant in a court case, and you do not have a lawyer to advise and represent you, you are a "Self-Represented Litigant" (SRL). "Litigant" means a party to a lawsuit. You may also be referred to as a "Pro Se Litigant". "Pro Se" means appearing for yourself. 

IF YOU ARE REPRESENTING YOURSELF, YOU ARE BOTH YOUR OWN LAWYER AND YOUR OWN CLIENT

You will be expected to be familiar with, and follow, the statutes (laws) that apply to your case as well as the Rules of Civil Procedure including the Local Rules, and Rules of Evidence. There are no special rules for self-represented people! The same rules that apply to lawyers apply to you. If you do not follow the law and the rules you may permanently lose important rights. Every case is handled according to the laws and the Rules.
There are two kinds of laws:  

  • Statutes are the laws passed by the legislature that apply to specific situations.  
  • Case law is when the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court interpret how a statute applies to a particular situation.

Rules are made by the New Mexico Supreme Court for how courts operate. Rules have the force of law. Be sure you know what laws apply in your case. 

The Rules of Civil Procedure govern how a case proceeds; how it’s filed, how the parties are notified that someone has filed something, how long the other side has to respond, how long you have to respond, how you get information from the other party, etc. The documents that are filed in a lawsuit are called "pleadings". The Rules tell you what information must be included in your pleadings. In addition, every judicial district has Local Rules that describe some procedures that are particular to that court. You must follow the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Local Rules whenever you appear in court for any reason and whenever you file anything. The Rules of Evidence govern what a judge or hearing officer can hear, and how it’s presented in court. The judge can only hear information that is allowed by the Rules of Evidence.

You may find the Rules and statutes at the Supreme Court Law Library. Be sure to study the statutes and Rules before you do anything. 

DO NOT TRY TO TALK TO THE JUDGE OR HEARING OFFICER IN PRIVATE

All your interactions with the judge or hearing officer will be in the formal setting of a courtroom, in "hearings", which are governed by the Rules of Civil Procedure and Rules of Evidence. 

If you want to talk to the judge, or you want the judge to make a decision on an issue, you must ask for a hearing. To ask for a hearing, you must file a Motion that tells the judge what you want to talk about or what decision you want him or her to make. You file the Motion in the Court Clerk's Office, along with a Request for Hearing. Be sure to send a copy of the Motion and Request for Hearing to the other party as soon as you file them.

Any time the judge hears anything about the case from one party, the other party must have notice that the judge will hear evidence, and they have the opportunity to be there to hear what is said, and there is a court reporter present to record what is said.

Provide a current and reliable mailing address and telephone number to the court, hearing office and the other party. Once you appear in a case you will be notified of hearings or motions by mail only. If you move and you miss a hearing because your mail fails to reach you, you may permanently lose important rights. If you move after the first time you file a pleading, you should file a change of address in the court file. The court will only mail notices to the address you provide in the court file.

APPEAR AT ALL SCHEDULED HEARINGS

Arrive at least fifteen (15) minutes before the scheduled time. Be sure to leave enough time to park and get through security – there may be a long line. Make sure the administrative assistant, bailiff, or court monitor for the Judge or Hearing Officer knows that you are present. 

If you have requested the Court to do something and you do not appear, your request will be dismissed. If the other party is asking for something and you do not appear, they may get whatever they are asking for because you are not present to object. If you do not appear at a scheduled hearing, you may permanently lose your opportunity to be heard on the issue.

BE PREPARED

Bring all your documents with you whenever you have a hearing. You must provide the other side with copies of everything you want to show the judge – before you get into court. If you have documents you want to show the judge, bring copies for the other side. If you, or any witnesses you may need to testify, need an interpreter to help understand the hearing, you should inform the administrative assistant for the judge or hearing officer assigned to your case at least twenty-four hours before the hearing. An interpreter will be provided at no cost for anyone who needs help understanding English. If you have any other special needs that require assistance during your hearing, please inform the judge's administrative assistant as soon as possible after receiving notice of hearing. 

All the pleadings, motions, notices, and orders that are filed in your case are kept in an official court file in the Court Clerk’s Office. Files are open to the public unless they have been sealed through a special process. In general, anyone can look at any documents in any file just by asking for the file. For this reason, you should be VERY careful about the information you include in any pleading you file. Do not put your Social Security number or complete account numbers in pleadings – someone could use that information to steal your identity.

You need to know what’s in your court file at all times. You can see what is in your case file by coming to the courthouse and asking at the Clerk’s Office to review the court file. You can get copies of documents in the file for a charge. You MAY NOT remove anything from the court file. The only way to add anything to the court file is to file it with the Court Clerk’s Office. 

You can see a list of the documents in your court file by going to www.nmcourts.gov and using the "Case Lookup" feature on the website.Case Lookup doesn’t show you the actual document, it is just a list of the documents in the file.

HOW TO ANSWER A PETITION OR COMPLAINT

The Rules of Civil Procedure and the Local Rules tell you exactly what the process is for conducting a lawsuit. Be sure to study the Rules before you file a case, or before you respond. 

All of these procedures are governed by the Rules of Civil Procedure. A lawsuit begins when a "Complaint for..."or a "Petition for..." is filed. The person who files the lawsuit is called the "Plaintiff" if they filed a Complaint or the "Petitioner" if they filed a Petition. The person it is filed against is called the "Defendant" if a Complaint was filed, and a "Respondent" if a Petition is filed.

After the Complaint or Petition is filed, the Plaintiff/Petitioner has to "serve" the Complaint or Petition on the Defendant/Respondent. "Service" is the procedure used to make sure that the person being sued knows about the suit. When service is complete, that is, when the Defendant/Respondent has a copy of the Complaint/Petition, then the Defendant/Respondent has 30 days to file an "Answer". Answers are very basic. Lawsuits are built around proving statements to be true or false, and then applying the law to them. If both parties agree that a statement is true, then it does not need to be proved further. If the parties do not agree that a statement is true, the lawsuit will continue on the disputed allegations.

The Complaint/Petition is arranged by numbered paragraphs. The statements in the numbered paragraphs are called "allegations", because they haven’t yet been agreed or proved to be true. Each separate allegation should have its own numbered paragraph. 

A proper Answer responds to each numbered paragraph in the Complaint/Petition using the same number. It’s very important to answer every numbered paragraph in the Complaint/Petition.

The response for each numbered paragraph is that the Defendant/Respondent either admits, denies, or doesn't know the truth about the allegations. If the Defendant/Respondent admits the allegations in a paragraph, they agree that the allegations are true, and so the allegations in that paragraph don’t need further proof. In an Answer, "admit" just means "agree". If the Defendant/Respondent denies the allegations in a paragraph, they disagree that the statement is true, and the allegation must be either proved or disproved. If the Defendant/Respondent doesn’t know if an allegation is true, they say that, and the allegation must be either proved or disproved. If the Respondent does not agree that the information is correct, s/he will write: "Respondent denies the allegations contained in paragraph 3." If the Respondent doesn’t know if the information is correct, s/he will write: "Respondent does not have sufficient information to admit or deny the allegations of paragraph 3, and therefore denies them." 

After you’ve answered all the numbered paragraphs, you respond to whatever it is that the Complaint/Petition says at the very end that it wants the court to do.

If you want to give your side of whatever allegations the Plaintiff/Petitioner made, you can add a section called "Affirmative Defenses". For instance, in a breach of contract case, if the Plaintiff has alleged that the Defendant didn’t do what the contract required, an "Affirmative Defense" might be that the Plaintiff did something that prevented the Defendant from performing under the contract.

COURTROOM BEHAVIOR

  1. When you come to court, dress with dignity. Some judges have dress codes, and you may be asked to leave the courtroom if your dress does not comply. Do not wear shorts, flip-flops, sunglasses, halter tops, tank tops, pants that won’t stay up without a belt or that show your underwear, T-shirts with rude messages, or other distracting clothing. Make sure any metal on your clothing (e.g., belts, shirts/jackets with metal buttons) can be removed, or you won’t make it through security. Be clean.
  2. Don’t be on time – be early, at least 15 minutes. You need to allow time to go through security, find your courtroom and check in. There is only one entrance to the courthouse, and only one person at a time can come in. Remember to allow time to find parking and get to the courthouse. Bring enough change for the parking meter or plan to park in a parking garage – you can’t get change in the courthouse, and once your hearing starts you can’t leave until it’s over.
  3. Don’t chew gum or eat or drink in the courtroom.
  4. Turn your cell phone off, not just on "vibrate".
  5. At your hearing or trial, you address the judge as "Your Honor". 
  6. DO NOT BRING CHILDREN TO COURT. Unless a child has been subpoenaed to testify.

IF YOU CAN’T ATTEND A SCHEDULED HEARING

If an emergency arises which requires you to vacate (cancel) or continue (postpone) a hearing, follow these steps:

  1. You must contact the other party’s attorney (Plaintiff’s attorney) and tell them that you need to cancel or postpone the hearing and why. Find out if they will agree to cancel or postpone the hearing.
  2. If the other party agrees, call the administrative assistant for the judge and tell them you are going to file a motion for vacation or a continuance, with the consent of the other party.
    a. Then fill out a Motion for Vacation or Continuance, being sure to state that the other party does not object to a continuance, and file it. You can download the form or pick one up at the Self Help Center.
  3. If the other party does not agree, call the administrative assistant  for the judge and tell them you are going to file a motion for vacation or a continuance and why, and the other party does not agree.
    a. Then fill out a Motion for Vacation or Continuance, stating that the other party does object to a continuance, and file it
    b. Make sure you ask the Clerk to give a courtesy copy to the judge. Give the other party a copy too, by hand-delivering, mailing, or faxing it to them. 
  4. The judge or hearing officer may grant the continuance, or he or she may set a hearing in person or by telephone to hear the other party's objections before ruling on your request to continue the hearing.
  5. A hearing is never canceled or postponed until the judge cancels or postpones it. Just because you or the other side has filed a motion to vacate or continue the hearing doesn’t mean it has been granted. Make sure you have heard from the judge's administrative assistant that you do not need to appear before you fail to appear.

The information on this website is not intended as legal advice, and does not substitute for seeking independent legal advice regarding the handling of a lawsuit or related legal matters.