This information is for pro se litigants who wish to represent themselves in a civil law case. What this means is that you are either the petitioner or the respondent in a case and do not have a lawyer.

You are encouraged to consult with a lawyer before proceeding further. Civil law is a very complex area of the law. There are hundreds of volumes of case law which have been published by the appellate courts of Florida, as well as statutes and court rules, including rules of evidence. You will be expected to know and follow these laws and rules of procedure as your case moves through the system. The law does not require that you have a lawyer, but advice from and representation by a trained lawyer can save valuable time and eliminate unnecessary frustration.

If you decide to continue to represent yourself, your primary contacts, before actually appearing in court before a judge, will be deputy clerks of court and the court’s Self Help Program staff.

The Clerk of the Circuit Court receives and processes pleadings and other papers submitted for filing by litigants. The Clerk also receives filing fees which litigants are required to pay when opening a case.

Rules regulating the practice of law prohibit non-lawyers from giving you legal advice. Canons of judicial ethics prohibit judges from giving you legal advice. For these reasons, no court officials - including the judge, the judge’s staff, the self-help case manager, officers of the Sheriff’s Department, the Clerk of the Circuit Court or any of the clerk’s staff -are permitted to represent you, give you legal advice, fill out your forms or tell you what to write in the forms. In fact, no court official is permitted to advise you which forms or pleadings are appropriate to address the issues you want to have the court consider and decide. These matters are your sole responsibility.

  1. Court staff and employees of the Clerk of Court’s Office cannot give legal advice or help you fill out forms. Please do not ask.
  2. When you act as your own lawyer, you are held to the same standards as an attorney. Many petitions and forms come with detailed instructions. Take time to thoroughly read and understand them before filing legal papers. You must read and understand the applicable rules of procedure that apply in your case and you must be familiar with the controlling legal principles. It is YOUR job to find out what these are. Your rights could be seriously jeopardized if you commit legal malpractice in your own case. Consider consulting with an attorney who is a member of The Florida Bar.
  3. It is YOUR responsibility to select the right forms and to properly complete them. Individual forms and packages of forms for certain types of proceedings are available from the Clerk for a fee. Forms also may be obtained on line at www.flcourts.org; the Pro Se Forms Page, the Sarasota County Clerk of Courts; the Manatee County Clerk of Courts; and the Desoto County Clerk of Courts.
  4. If you need help completing forms, you may seek the help of friends, visit a lawyer, or hire a paralegal. Paralegals are listed in the Yellow Pages of the phone book or online.
  5. If you believe you have selected the correct papers to file with the Clerk, you may do so. However, if you have chosen the wrong papers or they are incomplete, your case may be dismissed or delayed. Take the time to do it right. No action will be taken on your case until the correct papers are provided.
  6. The law requires certain petitions and motions to be served on the opposing party by use of a process server or a Deputy Sheriff. Failure to do so may prevent your case from going forward. YOU must determine when personal service of a paper is required. The clerk will refer you to the form (called a summons) which must accompany petitions and motions required to be served on a party.
  7. Remember, all motions and many other legal documents must contain a certificate of service showing copies sent to the opposing parties or their attorney.
  8. If you are defending a case, failure to file the correct response with the clerk may result in a default, which can keep you from contesting the matter in the future - forever.
  9. Court Staff screen all out-of-court communications between you and the judge. Judges may not see your letters, notes, e-mails or phone messages if they do not meet legal standards or if they contain inappropriate information. Court staff will make every effort to answer important questions about your case. However, due to large number of inquiries, not all requests for information can be answered by court staff.
  10. Make sure you can live with the consequences of litigation! If you are starting a proceeding, be aware the opposing side may respond by asking the court to take action you do not like. Sometimes persons representing themselves receive the exact opposite result they desire. Depending on the type of petition or motion you file, in a Family Division case the court may order you to pay for the other side’s attorney fees and court costs whether you win OR lose.
  11. Failure to appear in court for a hearing or trial may result in the other side getting whatever they request, including dismissal of the action or a default against the defending party. If you receive a summons or notice of hearing do not ignore them.
  12. YOUR CASE IS AN OPEN BOOK. With few exceptions, all papers filed for or against you in a Florida court are public record. They may be examined by members of the public, prospective employers and the press. Papers sent to the judge are filed in the clerk’s public record case file.
  13. THERE ARE NO WARRANTIES GIVEN AS TO FORMS: There are no warranties expressed or implied in regard to forms supplied by the Clerk of Court. They are only examples. They may or may not be suitable for the facts of your particular case. Use them at your own risk. They must be modified to fit your unique situation. The fact that the clerk provided you the basic form will not be a defense if what you file is wrong
  • Carefully read the Rules of Courtroom Etiquette document provided to you by the court. You are expected to comply with the rules and present yourself accordingly.
  • DO NOT bring your children to the courthouse.
  • The court ALWAYS prefers both parties to attend all hearings.
  • Always read or listen to, and follow the instructions provided to you.
  • Wait outside the courtroom until the bailiff calls your name.
  • If you were told to bring your Florida Driver License, be sure to have it readily available before you go into the courtroom.
  • If the judge/magistrate should interrupt you, STOP TALKING AND LISTEN!
  • Do not interrupt the judge, the other party, or witnesses.
  • Speak directly to the judge/magistrate.
  • Stay focused on the issues.
  • Be prepared for court!

These are short hearings before the judge/magistrate so that the court can:

  • Identify any additional documents that need to be filed;
  • Identify any conflicting issues;
  • Possibly refer the litigants to mediation to attempt to resolve the contested issues; Estimate the number of witnesses, if any, each party will call upon to testify at the final hearing;
  • Set a final hearing or trial date.

A petition or motion is a request for the court to make a decision. A hearing or trial is the time when the court will make a decision on the petition or motion filed by a party to the case. In general, motions are decided at hearings and petitions are decided at trials. The person making the decision will either be a judge, magistrate or hearing officer (referred to here as “the court”).

What is a hearing or trial?

A hearing/trial is a meeting with the court and both parties where the court will consider evidence that both sides present and will make a decision.

Who brings the evidence?

The court CANNOT investigate the case. The court cannot call witnesses or present evidence. It is YOUR responsibility to present admissible evidence at a hearing/trial to support what you have requested in a motion/petition or to defend against what the other party has requested in their motion/petition. Evidence can be witness testimony, testimony of you and/or the other party, documents, photographs, objects, etc. Admissible evidence is evidence the court is allowed to consider under the Rules of Evidence (See Florida Statutes, chapter 90). For example, letters from non-parties and repeating what a non-party told you (unless they are present in court to testify) generally are hearsay and are not admissible in court. However, there are many exceptions to the hearsay rule and admissibility of evidence should be researched before your hearing or trial.

How much time will I have to present the evidence?

Generally, you will have HALF of the time scheduled to present your evidence.

Who tells the other party about the hearing or trial?

If you are scheduling the hearing, it is your responsibility to notify the other party. You are required to send a Notice of Hearing to the other party at the last address in the court file (note: it is a good idea to also send to all other known/possible addresses) and to list all addresses used for the other party on the Notice of Hearing. If the court tells you it will prepare the Notice of Hearing, this requirement is waived. It is your responsibility to keep your address current in the court file AT ALL TIMES. All documents filed by you should state your current address.

If you have documents or items that you feel will help prove your case (i.e. copies of bills, receipts, printed text messages, a video burned to a portable drive, etc.), you must bring them with you. However, you must be aware that there are evidentiary rules that may prohibit their use, so determine whether witnesses may be necessary to properly introduce these items into evidence.

Prepare an opening statement, which is a brief statement indicating:

  • What the hearing is for (i.e. final divorce hearing, petition to modify parenting plan, etc.);
  • Whether or not an agreement has been reached;
  • What the issues are that the judge/magistrate will have to decide upon;
  • How many witnesses you will call upon to testify.

Each side will have the opportunity to present his/her case before the judge/magistrate by:

  • Submitting evidence;
  • Direct examination of witnesses;
  • Cross-examination of witnesses by opposing party
  • All documents or items you present to the judge/magistrate and the questions that you ask the witnesses must be relevant to the issues before the court and the facts that you need to prove.
  • You can testify as your own witness.
  • You can call other individuals to be witnesses.
  • You can subpoena a witness.

Hearsay is the legal term for any statement, verbal or non-verbal, offered as evidence that is not based on a witness's personal knowledge, but instead on another person’s statement that was not made under oath. Generally, hearsay is not admissible evidence.

The Florida state courts have agreed to follow federal regulations and guidelines to provide a spoken language interpreter to limited English-proficient persons for any court event when requested. As of February 1, 2017, Court Administration will be responsible for scheduling all interpreter requests, including Spanish, for all court events in Manatee and Sarasota Counties. Court Administration will be using both staff interpreters and contractual interpreters to meet these needs. It is the policy of Court Administration that a staff Spanish interpreter is assigned to be present at first appearances, misdemeanor arraignments, criminal traffic arraignments, felony arraignments, juvenile delinquency and dependency arraignments, as well as detention and shelter hearings. Court Administration requires ALL other court interpreter requests to be submitted online. The person needing the interpreter or his/her attorney is responsible for scheduling the interpreter. The court does not automatically schedule interpreters for you. Each scheduled court event must be scheduled separately, as one scheduled event does not automatically schedule an interpreter for the duration of the case.

Requests for court interpreters should be made at least 5 days in advance of the scheduled proceeding. It is in your best interest to schedule the interpreter when you are given your next court date. We will try our best to honor interpreting requests made with less than 5 business days’ notice, but we may not be able to accommodate. In the case of less common languages, more time may be necessary to arrange for a qualified interpreter and/or a telephonic interpreting service may be used.

Once an interpreting request is made, you will receive an email confirmation of that request and either a staff interpreter or a contract interpreter will be assigned to the case. If there is an issue or question regarding your request, the scheduling assistant will contact you by phone or email to clarify. To schedule an interpreter go to the Interpreter Request Form or please call (941) 749-3659 for additional information.

If your final hearing is before the magistrate, and neither party files an exception to the magistrate’s decision, you must wait (10) ten days from the date of your final hearing for the judge to sign a final judgment accepting the magistrate’s decision. If both parties appear at the final hearing, the parties may agree to waive the waiting period.

The petitioner must pay the Clerk of Court a filing fee of $10.50 for the clerk to record the final judgment. If the parties do not agree to waive the ten-day waiting period, your final judgment will be available at the clerk’s office two weeks after your final hearing.

Because you are representing yourself in court, it is your responsibility to become familiar with the rules and laws relevant to your legal matter. Be sure you are aware of the Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure, Florida Statutes, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, and the Florida Rules of Evidence. The judge, the magistrate, case managers, or other court personnel cannot give you legal advice.

You may obtain additional information and forms by visiting the Florida State Courts at www.flcourts.org:

Family law forms and small claims forms are also available at the Clerk’s Office in packets for a fee.