How to File a Lawsuit Without a Lawyer

"First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," says a character in Shakespeare's Henry VI. You don't have to hold to such extreme views to recognize that an attorney's services are expensive. If you decide to file your own court documents without paying that legal retainer, just keep in mind that you have to do the research and complete the paperwork yourself.

Preliminary Considerations

If you talk to an attorney about filling a legal case for you, she helps you determine whether your position is viable, whether you still have time to file your lawsuit and where you should file. If you plan to act without an attorney, this is research you must do yourself. The best place to start is on your court's self-help website, if it has one. Most court websites have a lot of good information that will help you figure out these basic questions. Some courts have staff available that can answer your questions and get you started in the right direction.

Understanding the Paperwork

To file a lawsuit, you have to prepare the opening documents, the summons and the complaint. More often than not, the court provides fill-in-the-blank forms that you can, and sometimes must, use. In the complaint, you name yourself as the person bringing the suit -- the plaintiff -- and identify the people or entities you are suing, termed the defendants. You also must include facts that give a general description of the circumstances and the types of injuries or damages you suffered. The summons tells the defendants how long they have to respond to the complaint by filing their own documents.

Preparing the Documents

A complaint must state a "cause of action" against the defendant. This means that you have to do something more than merely complain about someone's actions. The facts you describe must constitute a legal claim over which you can sue. For example, you may be furious because your upstairs neighbors vacuum at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings, but unless you establish that they are negligent, or doing something illegal, you probably can't state a legal cause of action or recover any damages. It may be wise to run your complaint by an attorney before you file it.

Service and Filing

Service in the context of a lawsuit has a particular meaning. It involves delivering the legal documents to the other parties in a manner set out by law. Summons and complaints are usually personally served on the other side when an adult who is not a party to the lawsuit places the documents in the other person's hands. The person serving the papers signs a "proof of service" document, stating when and how she served the documents. You must file the summons and complaint with the court either before service or after service, depending on the rules of your jurisdiction.