Not everyone can afford to pay for a private lawyer. And in Australia, we do not have a right to a government-funded lawyer to represent us in court. This is different to the US where defendants in criminal cases have the right to a public defender.
One Colorado man, Charles Abbott, was on the waiting list for a public defender when, rather than represent himself, he chose to have a stuffed owl named ‘Soloman’ defend him.
Sixty-seven year old Mr Abbott appeared in Pitkin County Court with a taxidermy owl as his defence team. He placed it on the bar table and told the court that Soloman would represent him until he was given a public defender.
He described his furry defender as “a very sensitive guy” who “has law degrees from Yale, Harvard and Stanford” – impressive!
Sadly, Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely ignored the owl throughout the case, treating Mr Abbott as self-represented. But that didn’t matter – Mr Abbott was doing such a good job by himself that Soloman didn’t even need to object or make additional submissions to the court.
The proceedings were for the alleged breach of a protection order against Mr Abbott, who previously had a “fracas” with his roommate, seventy-five year old Michael Stranahan. The altercation occurred at an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting, and Mr Abbott allegedly breached the resulting protection order by returning to the apartment to collect his property.
At the end of the day, the Judge let Mr Abbott off with just a warning – not a bad result for the defence team!
Representing Yourself in Court
In NSW, you are generally entitled to represent yourself in court for both civil and criminal proceedings.
However, there are exceptions to this rule: section 8(7)(c) of the Vexatious Proceedings Act 2008 (NSW) allows the Supreme Court to order that a “vexatious litigant” must be represented by a lawyer. The court can even prohibit such a person from commencing proceedings in the first place. A vexatious litigant is one that frequently commences or conducts proceedings without reasonable grounds, or which are intended to harass, annoy or delay.
Another exception is contained in section 294A of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986 (NSW), which prevents self-represented defendants who are accused of sexual offences from personally questioning complainants in court.
Self Representation vs Hiring a Lawyer
If you are planning to represent yourself, it may be a good idea to take advantage of a free first conference with an experienced lawyer, during which you can get basic advice about how to prepare and present your case.
But there can be downsides to representing yourself in court; especially if you are unfamiliar with court rules, process and procedures. You may not have the same level of legal knowledge as a specialist lawyer, who will know how to present your case in the most effective way in order to give you the highest chance of getting the best result.
A criminal defence lawyer will be experienced in the courtroom, will usually be familiar with the magistrates and judges, and will be able to remain objective when systematically presenting your case in a powerful and persuasive manner.
For these and other reasons, it is sometimes said that “the person who represents themselves has a fool as an advocate”.
Mr Abbott was lucky that the Judge was willing to look the other way in relation to his antics. However, those facing more serious criminal charges should certainly consider seeing an experienced lawyer.