Going to court without a lawyer

Individuals can represent themselves in a court case and go to court without a lawyer. This may be a valid option if you are confident in your ability to research, prepare and manage your case through the court process.

However, there is more to representing yourself than filing an application and going to court to tell a judge what happened. You need to ensure that you have a clear understanding of what will be involved and your responsibilities before making the decision to represent yourself in court.

Get legal aid to pay for a lawyer

Legal aid is government funding that pays for people, who cannot afford a lawyer, to get legal help.

Find out whether you are eligible for legal aid

If you have a lawyer, they will be able to help you apply for legal aid. You can also get a legal aid application form from a District Court, Community Law Centre or Citizen Advice Bureau.

Find out about applying for legal aid

Please note that even if you qualify for legal aid, there may still be a financial cost as people who get legal aid may have to repay part or all of their legal aid costs.

Find out about the cost of legal aid

Questions to consider before deciding to represent yourself

Do you have the time and resources to represent yourself?

The law is complex and there is a lot of work involved in preparing a case and going to court. This work will require time, money, and resources. You will be expected to do work usually done by a lawyer, such as writing an application that uses appropriate wording and legal references, but you will be doing this without the specialist training and knowledge that a lawyer has.

Please note that if you are successful in your case your time and labour are not recoverable as part of any costs that the court may award in your favour. If you are successful, the expenditure (disbursements) that may be recoverable from the other party only includes filing fees, service fees, and photocopying costs.

The time taken for a case to go through court can vary. Some court cases may be dealt with quite quickly, within 3 to 4 months. Others may take 18 months or more.  In making the decision to represent yourself, you may also want to consider the impact on your work and family.

Will you be able to undertake a dual role?

If you are a party to a court case it means that your involvement may fall into any of the following categories:

  • facing criminal charges
  • making an application in court
  • responding to an application in court.

As a party to a court case you are likely to be dealing with a stressful situation that may also affect your emotional state.  Representing yourself in court means, however, that you will also be taking on an advocate role.

An advocate is someone who pleads for or speaks on behalf of another person. It may be difficult to be a party to a court case and advocating for yourself at the same time. An advocate may be required to do any of the following while a case progresses through court:

  • conduct settlement negotiations with other parties to the case
  • respond to the issues raised by the prosecution or parties to a case
  • understand the merits of the case and the potential outcome.

In court, a lawyer usually acts as the advocate.

What is involved in going to court without a lawyer?

The following information will give you an idea of some of the things you may need to do if you represent yourself.

Research and prepare a case

  • Identify and understand the law that is applicable to your case.
  • Access the legal resources to research your case, for example, case law and legislation. 
  • Identify and complete the relevant forms that need to be filed with the court.
  • Present the facts, but also tell the court how the law applies to the facts of your case.

Manage a case through court

  • Manage your case through different procedural pathways.
  • Comply with court directions and orders.
  • Prepare evidence.
  • Undertake settlement negotiations with other parties and/or lawyers (civil cases only).

Going to a court hearing

  • Understand courtroom protocol.
  • Prepare various documents in support of your case such as submissions, authorities, and witness briefs.
  • Understand court procedure such as cross-examination of a witness and presenting an exhibit.

Court staff cannot provide legal advice

The court system is administered by court staff and they can explain in general terms how the court system works, but they cannot provide legal advice about your case. This means court staff cannot advise you on the forms or documents to file in court.    

Getting legal advice if you don’t have a lawyer

You may be able to get legal help from the following organisations:

You can still discuss your case with a lawyer at any stage, even if you decide not to instruct a lawyer to represent you in court. You can search for a lawyer on the New Zealand Law Society website by area of practice, such as criminal and civil litigation.

Find a lawyer through the New Zealand Law Society (external link)

Potential outcomes if a decision goes against you

Outcomes vary across courts and you should ensure that you understand what these are either by seeking legal advice or researching the law yourself.

Some general information about outcomes, as it relates to criminal and civil cases, is as follows:

  • In a criminal case, the penalty may be a fine, a community-based sentence, home detention, or imprisonment.
  • If a decision goes against you in a civil case, you may be ordered to pay money to another party. In civil cases, the unsuccessful party can also expect to pay costs to the successful party. The costs of the successful party could include disbursements as well as their legal fees if they have a lawyer. Costs are generally allocated (categorised) on the scale costs contained in Schedule 2 and 3 of the High Court Rules, but the court can make an order for actual costs.

Read Schedule 2 of the High Court Rules (external link)

Read Schedule 3 of the High Court Rules (external link)

Please note that having a lawyer does not necessarily mean you will win your case but it may improve the likelihood of a realistic assessment of the merits of your case, and getting an outcome more quickly.

Getting information about going to court

The Ministry of Justice provides the following practical guidance for people going to court:

You can also find information about making an application to a tribunal

You can also find out more about the justice system, including a guide to legal language

Accessing legal resources

If you decide to represent yourself in court, it will be your responsibility to research your case and find the resources to do that. Some well-known legal resources are:

‘Case law’ is part of common law legal systems, and refers to decisions of the court which establish a new interpretation of the law and are cited as a precedent or authority in subsequent court cases.

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