If you have been targeted by defamatory statements, you have the right to represent yourself at trial. In the legal community, this is known as proceeding “pro se.” If you choose to file your defamation lawsuit without an attorney’s help, you should follow these four steps.
Defamation Pro Se Step #1: Know What You Need to Prove
In every lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove a list of facts known as elements. In order to prepare your defamation case, you’ll need to be extremely familiar with the elements that apply to your defamation lawsuit. When you encounter a piece of evidence, you must immediately know which element of your case it proves.
Defamation is a broader term for two specific legal theories: libel and slander. For libel, the basic elements are: The defendant made a defamatory, or false and derogatory, statement; at least one person other than the defendant heard the statement; and the plaintiff was injured in some way. The basic elements of slander are virtually identical, but the statement must have been published in permanent form.
Defamation Pro Se Step #2: Gather Evidence
As time passes, memories fade and relevant documents disappear. As soon as you discover someone made harmful statements about you, start gathering and preserving evidence. Here are some of the investigative steps you should take:
- Write down everything you remember about the case. Your memory deteriorates with every day that passes.
- Contact any witnesses who might have information about the case. Ask them what they know and record their answers.
- Save original documents, not copies. This is particularly important if the defamatory statements were published. If you cannot find an original, you can substitute a high-quality photocopy.
Defamation Pro Se Step #3: Research Defamation Law
Once you have gathered all of the relevant evidence, you should research defamation law until you completely understand how it applies to the facts of your case. Beyond knowing the elements of your suit, you need to master all the arguments your opponent might raise. The issues that you think are most important may not be relevant, and points you think are unimportant may determine the outcome of the case.
You can use free defamation law resources found on the Internet as a starting point, but you will need to gather specific information about the law as it has been interpreted by the courts in your jurisdiction. To do this, you will need to visit a local law library. Most courthouses have modest libraries that are open to the public; plan to spend many hours poring through treatises and court reports until you fully understand the law that governs your case so you can proceed with defamation pro se.
Defamation Pro Se Step #4: Master the Procedural Rules.
The parties to a lawsuit must follow a set of procedural rules. These rules are extremely complex and often span more than a thousand pages. Even though you do not have an attorney, you will be held responsible for following the rules of court. Many otherwise strong cases have been dismissed because a party ignored or failed to understand the rules.
Consider Consulting a Defamation Attorney
If you are concerned about your ability to complete all of these defamation pro se steps successfully, you should consult a defamation lawyer.