Can a Pro Se Litigant Win Attorney’s Fees?

Courtroom

Regular people can, and do, appear in court all of the time without an attorney. This is very important, because not everybody can afford a lawyer. But can a person representing themselves ask for an award of attorney’s fees? Read on to learn more.

What is a Pro Se Litigant?

Courts describe self-represented parties as “pro se” or “in pro per” litigants. These are latin phrases that basically mean “for oneself.”

Importantly, courts require self-represented parties to follow all of the same rules that lawyers must follow. While not impossible, this can make it difficult for a pro se party to effectively navigate the court process.

But what happens when a pro-se litigant wins their lawsuit? Can they ask for money for acting as their own attorney?

Attorney’s Fees in Lawsuits

Most courts follow the “American Rule.” This says that each side to a lawsuit will pay for their own lawyers fees and costs. In other countries, the losing party will pay for all of the legal bills. But not here in America.

However, there are two main exceptions to the American Rule. Some laws specifically allow the winning party to ask for attorney’s fees. And contracts can also allow the winning party to a lawsuit to ask for court fees and costs. In these two cases, a winning party can petition the court for an award of attorney’s fees.

Self-Represented Parties Can’t Usually Win Attorney’s Fees

In most cases, a self-represented party cannot ask the court for an award of attorney’s fees. Of course, there are exceptions to this (and every) rule. But here in California, the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that a party to a civil lawsuit can’t claim attorney’s fees unless they actually incurred the fees.

Since a pro-se party didn’t actually pay any attorney’s fees, they cannot later ask the court for a reimbursement of those fees. If you consult with an attorney and actually pay for some services, those fees may be recoverable.

Court costs are treated differently. For instance, a self-represented party can still ask for reimbursement of their court filing fee if they win.