Proceeding Without an Attorney

If you are proceeding in a civil action in federal court, but do not have an attorney to represent you, you may represent yourself. This is called "proceeding pro se" which is a Latin term meaning "for yourself." You will then be called a "pro se litigant." You need not worry if you have had little or no experience with the courts before. You are, however, expected to follow and abide by the rules that govern the practice of law in the federal court. Pro se litigants should be familiar with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Local Rules of this Court.

A civil case, which is the only type of case individuals can commence in federal court, is different from a criminal case, which can only be commenced by government officials. In a civil case, you do not have a constitutional right to appointed counsel. Therefore, if you proceed with a civil case pro se, you should be prepared to pursue it to completion on your own.

Starting a Lawsuit

A lawsuit is started by the filing of a complaint. The Western District of Wisconsin requires a plaintiff to submit only the original signed complaint. That original complaint must be signed by the individual plaintiff (if there is more than one plaintiff, each individual plaintiff must sign the original complaint). Corporations cannot proceed pro se, therefore, the complaint must be signed by an individual.

Pro se litigants must submit an original signed complaint to the Clerk's Office, along with the filing fee or an application to proceed in forma pauperis. An application to proceed in forma pauperis is a form completed by the person starting the lawsuit asking the Court to establish a payment plan for payment of the filing fee. However, if the Court grants permission to proceed in forma pauperis, the filing fee is NOT waived. Instead, the entire amount of the filing fee is broken into payments (prisoners may have a percentage of their income deducted) based on a number of factors explained more fully in the application to proceed in forma pauperis. The Court may also direct a plaintiff to pay an initial partial filing fee (based on income) before being allowed to proceed with a case. Prisoners must also include a trust fund account statement if they request to proceed in forma pauperis. If a prisoner pays the full filing fee with the filing of the complaint, he or she does not need to supply trust fund account information.

The Clerk's Office has complaint forms that litigants may use to file a general civil lawsuit, a prisoner civil rights action or an action for habeas corpus relief by a federal or state prisoner. For other types of actions, the complaint  should be typewritten or legibly handwritten. The Court prefers plaintiffs draft the complaint in English using black ink on 8-1/2" x 11" white paper.

A complaint must contain the following: [See FRCP 11].

1.  A caption at the top of the page,

2.  The word "COMPLAINT" in the caption,

3.  A statement of jurisdiction and venue,

4.  A statement of facts,

5.  The remedy requested,

6.  The words "JURY DEMAND" if the plaintiff wants the case to be decided by a jury at trial, and

7.  The plaintiff's signature, address and telephone number.

As a pro se litigant, you may pay the filing fee and deliver the complaint to the Clerk's Office in person. Or, if you prefer to mail your complaint, please send your completed complaint package and fee (if you are able) to Clerk of Court, 120 North Henry Street, Room 320, Madison, WI 53703.

Once the Clerk's Office receives the complaint, a case number will be assigned to your case and your case will be assigned to a judge. Do NOT serve your papers on any of the named defendants until you have been given further instruction from the court.

Defending a Lawsuit

An individual defendant may elect to proceed pro se in federal court. Corporations, by contrast, must have a lawyer. If something is unclear to you and you cannot afford an attorney to assist you, call the Clerk's Office at 608-264-5156 to speak to a pro se deputy clerk.

If you are served with a lawsuit, very carefully review ALL of the paperwork you receive and follow all of the written instructions. Pay careful attention to any deadlines. If something is unclear to you, call the Clerk's Office at 608-264-5156 to speak to a pro se deputy clerk. The pro se deputy clerks are allowed to give only procedural information and cannot tell you how to defend yourself in a lawsuit. Pro se litigants are cautioned to become familiar with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Local Rules of the Court.

How Cases Move Through Federal Court

The Federal Judicial Center offers a very concise flow chart with thorough explanations. This outline of how a civil case moves through federal court may answer many of your procedural questions. This information is available here.