The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," ran in the Champaign News Gazette.
A friend asked me to cover a court date for him, because he was out of town. It was just a “status check,” to set the next court date. The judge refused to let me do anything because I’m not a lawyer. So, my friend got defaulted and lost his case. I know I couldn’t represent him at a trial, but why couldn’t I be there just to find out the next court date?
Only lawyers can go to court for someone else. It’s the law.
The Illinois Attorney Act says: “No person shall be permitted to practice as an attorney or counselor at law within this State without having previously obtained a license for that purpose from the Supreme Court of this State.”
So, if you’re not a lawyer, you can only go to court for yourself—and (maybe) your spouse.
Back in 1839, shortly after Lincoln became a lawyer, the Illinois Supreme Court said the Attorney Act protects the public “against the practices of those who might seduce their confidence and induce them to trust the latter in the management of important interests.”
The court thought that unless someone has a law license, the public would be vulnerable to “the mistakes, the ignorance and unskillfulness of pretenders.”
That’s why the judge wouldn’t let you appear for your friend, and why, for example, someone who is not an attorney can’t help you with a real estate closing.
Individuals can, of course, always represent themselves. The Attorney Act puts it this way: “Plaintiffs shall have the liberty of prosecuting, and defendants of defending in their proper persons.”
For federal courts, federal law says pretty much the same thing: “In all courts of the United States the parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally or by counsel.”
Spouses can represent each other, but only when they get sued together. When they’re both defendants, one spouse can show up and the other won’t be defaulted.
Parents cannot, however, represent their minor children. A parent can be their child’s named representative on court papers, but not their in-court representative. An Illinois court put it simply: “one not authorized to practice law may not represent a minor in a court of record.”
Same thing in federal court, where one case said this rule “helps to ensure that children rightfully entitled to legal relief are not deprived of their day in court by unskilled, if caring, parents.”
So, at least when it comes to court cases, you can either represent yourself, or be represented by a lawyer. But even for simple and routine matters, you can’t go to court for someone else without a law license.
Some federal and state agencies allow people who are not lawyers to represent others at administrative hearings. For example, people who are not lawyers are allowed to represent someone at Social Security and Unemployment Benefit hearings. (Not, however, at Worker Comp hearings.)
And, in some private arbitration proceedings, representatives who are not lawyers are allowed.
Federal bankruptcy law also permits people who are not lawyers to prepare bankruptcy petitions, but prohibits them from actually going to court.