Purpose

The pro se court strategy provides students with a simplified look at judicial decision-making. It allows all students in the class to role play a case with a small number of students and simple rules of evidence. The court is a triad, consisting of: a judge, who will hear arguments from the two sides and make the final decision; a plaintiff, who is the person bringing the action before the judge; and the defendant, who is accused of wrong-doing. Many teachers use the pro se court strategy to introduce students to the adversary system and to give students a basic experience before they conduct a more formal moot court or mock trial. 

Procedures

  1. (Optional) Invite an attorney or judge to act as a community resource person. Call the local bar association, particularly the young lawyers’ association, for volunteers.
  2. Divide the class into three equal groups (judges, plaintiffs, and defendants.)
  3. Give students in each group time to prepare for the hearing.
    • Judges should be instructed in “court procedure” and given time to prepare questions for the plaintiffs and defendants.
    • The plaintiffs should be given time to prepare their opening statements and closing arguments.
    • The defendants should be given time to prepare their opening statements and closing arguments.
  4. Move students into new groups of three. Each group should have one judge, one lawyer for the plaintiff and one lawyer for the defense. Inform judges that when they have a plaintiff and a defendant, they may begin “court.”
  5. Conduct the pro se court, using the following procedures:
    • Opening statements by the parties (first by the plaintiff and then by the defendant.) An appropriate time limit should be imposed on these statements.
    • Plaintiff is questioned by the judge.
    • Defendant is questioned by the judge.
    • Closing arguments by the parties (first by the plaintiff and then by the defendant).
    • Judge makes a decision and explains his or her reasons.
  6. Once the judges deliver their decisions, call the class together to debrief the activity as a large group. Ask students:
    • What was the most challenging part of this exercise? The easiest? Which part did you like best?
    • Was your side pleased with the result?
    • What were the strongest arguments on your side? What were the other team’s strongest arguments?
    • For judges: Was it difficult to make a decision? What factors did you consider? What did you find most persuasive?                 
  7. To conduct a pro se court at the appellate level, replace the plaintiff with a petitioner and the defendant with a respondent, and remind the students to keep their arguments focused on the legal issues in the case, not the facts.
  8. (Optional) Ask the community resource person to discuss the decision-making process and decisions given. How would the community resource person’s decisions and rationale compare to the decisions given by the student judges?