In general, persons who are appearing in court have the right to choose to represent themselves. However, an attorney must usually represent other entities, such as corporations, associations or partnerships, except in Small Claims actions.
Courts will consider the same question only once. This refusal to relitigate a previously decided case is called the doctrine of res judicata. Persons who represent themselves, also called pro se litigants, are held to the same standards of preparation and compliance with court rules and procedures that attorneys must follow, so you should carefully consider whether your one chance to have a case resolved in your favor might be at risk if you proceed without the help of a lawyer.
If you are unsure as to whether you should be represented by a lawyer you should seek an evaluation from a lawyer of your choice. If you do not know of a lawyer, you may wish to get a referral from the Maine State Bar Associations Lawyer Information and Referral Service. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may be eligible for a lawyer from one or more legal services providers.
There is a very comprehensive web site designed to serve as a central resource for persons seeking forms, instructions and other help for representing yourself. It is HelpMElaw.org, and, if you are considering representing yourself, we strongly urge that you review that site.
Small Claims Cases
Small claims cases are heard in the District Court. The small claims system was created to be used by persons without lawyers, as well as by those who are represented. Each District Court clerks office has small claim packets, which include forms to start a case and a Guide to Small Claims pamphlet.
Most family law cases, including divorces, paternity cases, actions between unmarried parents, Protection from Abuse actions, Protections from Harassment actions and motions to enforce or amend earlier orders, or to hold the adverse party in contempt are heard in the District Court. Each District Court clerks office has various packets, which include forms to start a case and brief instructions. (You can also obtain a copy of our pamphlet, A Guide to Protection Actions from this site or those offices.) The Family Division of the District Court handles many family law cases, If so, you will have an initial Case Management Conference held by a Case Management Officer, who will help you understand the process and to proceed to the next steps.
Criminal and Juvenile Cases
Many people hire their own attorney to help them if they are charged with a crime. However, if you are charged with a crime in which there is a risk that you may go to jail, and if you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the court may appoint a lawyer for you, and the state will pay the lawyer. The Judge who handles your case at the first court appearance, called an arraignment, will go over this with you. If you think you are entitled to have a court appointed lawyer you will be required to fill out an application under oath, and to meet with a financial screener. You may be required to contribute to the cost of the lawyer, if the court finds that you are able to do so.
In most civil and criminal cases each party has the right to appeal the decision to a different court. The issues heard on appeal, however, are limited to questions of law considered in the trial court. A trial judge's decision about what the law is or whether to admit testimony is generally reviewable, but a jury's (or judge's) decision to believe or disbelieve properly admitted evidence is reviewable only for abuse of discretion or insufficiency of evidence.
Most District Court appeals are filed directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. Small claims appeals and evictions (forcible entry and detainer) appeals are filed in the Superior Court.
Appeals from the Superior Court may be taken to the Supreme Judicial Court.
The Supreme Judicial Court is the State's highest court and the court of final appeal. It has seven justices, presided over by the Chief Justice, the head of the Judicial Branch.
The Court's major job is to decide appeals on questions of law that arise in civil actions and criminal trials. Questions of law are presented to the Court when a case is appealed from a trial court. Parties or their lawyers present written briefs and oral arguments outlining their respective positions. The justices reflect on the questions presented and issue a written opinion deciding the issues in accordance with the Court's view of the law and reversing or affirming the lower court's decision or a brief memorandum of decision briefly describing the outcome in a particular case.
The Guide for Appeals to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is designed for those who are not familiar with procedures for appealing cases to the Law Court.