Going To Court
Get suggestions on how to prepare for your hearing or trial, and learn what you might expect when it finally comes time for you to stand up in court and represent yourself.
Plan From The Start Of Your Case
Attending your hearing or trial is certainly one of the most important (and stressful) parts of your case. (If trials were unimportant and boring, there would not be so many lawyer shows on TV!) But equally important is all the work that is done getting a case ready to go to trial. In fact, most cases are won or lost based upon the preparation that is done well before the parties step into the courtroom. Start planning for your hearing or trial at the very beginning of your case.
Here are a couple of big-picture things you should think about from the start:
- Make sure that you know and understand the law that applies to your case and exactly what you need to prove or disprove at the trial or hearing (as well as what damages you or the other side may be entitled to recover).
- Make sure you know and understand your own position on the key legal and factual issues in your case and – just as important! – know the other side's position on those key issues.
- Make sure that you have obtained (through the "discovery" process or otherwise) all of the documents and information that you will need to prove or defend your case.
- Make sure that you have identified all of your witnesses and that you know their testimony (to the extent possible).
- Make sure you have disclosed all of your documents and witnesses to the other side as required by the rules of practice applicable to your case.
CAUTION! If you do not disclose your witnesses and documents to the other side, you may not be able to use them at trial.
- Make sure that you have complied with all orders issued by the judge, including scheduling orders that may require you to provide certain documents (like document or witness disclosures or trial briefs, for example) to the court or the other side.
Before Your Trial Or Hearing
As your court date gets a little closer, you may want to —
- Re-read all of the court papers in your case and make sure you understand what each paper says, what your position is, and how the other side has responded to your position.
- Observe a court hearing that is similar to yours, ideally in front of the same judge, so that you can see how the judge manages the courtroom and how attorneys and parties act in court.
- If you are still unclear about any issues in your case, research those issues so that you understand them.
- Re-read all the discovery (if there has been any) that you provided to the other side or the other side provided to you.
- If you are having a jury trial, make sure you understand the rules for selecting a jury and prepare your questions to prospective jurors.
- If you are having a jury trial or the judge is allowing opening statements in your bench trial, prepare your opening statement.
- If witnesses are testifying, prepare questions for your witnesses and the witnesses identified by the other side.
FYI! You can find videos at the law library or on the Internet on how to examine and cross-examine witnesses.
- If an important witness will not attend your trial or hearing voluntarily, get the court to issue a "subpoena" (a formal document that orders a named individual to appear before the court at a fixed time to give testimony). Subpoenas must be accompanied with a check for witness fees and mileage and, if possible, served at least fifteen days prior to the trial or hearing.
- Organize all of the documents you intend to use in your case so that you can find what you are looking for (even if you are rushed or stressed).
- Double check that you have complied with any instructions from the court about how exhibits are to be organized and marked.
TIP! If the judge has not issued an order regarding such details, contact the judge's assistant or clerk to see if the judge has particular requirements or preferences.
- Familiarize yourself with the rules of evidence and make sure you know what you need to do under those rules to get your evidence in front of the judge or jury for consideration.
- Arrange for an interpreter at least two business days before your hearing if one is needed for you or your witnesses to be able to testify.
- Arrange for childcare (unless the court has required you to bring your children to court for some reason).
- Practice your argument in front of a mirror or friends without reading from a prepared statement.
On The Big Day: Your Trial Or Hearing
When the day of your trial or hearing arrives —
- Bring copies of all papers you and the other side have filed with the court or given to each other.
- Bring a notepad and pens for taking notes during the hearing.
- Bring your evidence and witnesses (if the hearing is the type of hearing where evidence will be considered).
- If you have documents or pictures, bring the original item and two copies (original for the court, one copy for you, and one copy for the other side) unless the court has ordered something else.
- Make sure your documents are organized neatly and logically.
TIP! It will be your job to walk the judge, jury, or witnesses through your documents, so you might want to arrange them in a tabbed binder for easy reference. The judge might also have rules or preferences regarding how documents are used in the courtroom. Take time in advance of your hearing or trial to find this out.
- Be on time. Allow extra time for traffic or other possible delays.
- Dress appropriately and conservatively. You are not required to wear any particular type of outfit (like a suit or a dress) but you should refrain from wearing shorts, tank tops, halter-tops, or shirts that show your midriff. All hats and sunglasses must be taken off prior to entering the courtroom.
- Ask your witnesses to arrive early and dress nicely.
- Bring an outline of what you want to say. You do not want to read a prepared statement, but an outline can be a useful tool to remind you of the main points that you want to cover.
- When you enter the courtroom, ask the bailiff or the courtroom clerk whether you are supposed to check in.
- Stand when the judge enters or leaves the courtroom.
- When your case is called, walk to the table or podium in front of the judge and stand facing the judge.
- Be prepared to state your name and your relationship to the case. (This is sometimes called making your "appearance." It might go something like this: "Your honor, my name is John Doe, and I'm the defendant in this case.")
- Speak clearly and loudly enough that the judge can hear you.
- Conduct yourself properly in the courtroom. Do not chew gum, eat, read a newspaper, sleep, listen to earphones, or have your cell phone turned on.
- Listen carefully and talk directly to the judge, whom you should address as “Judge” or “Your Honor.”
- Be prepared to state your position on each of the issues in your case, how you would like the judge to rule, and why the judge should rule in your favor.
- Avoid the temptation to speak directly to the other side; do not argue with the other side or interrupt them, and keep your emotions in check.
- Never interrupt the other side or the judge! Answer all of the judge's questions and stop talking immediately if the judge interrupts you.
- If you are asking for the court to make an order on one or more issues, make sure the judge addresses each of the issues and that the order on each issue is clear. If you do not understand the judge's order, politely tell the judge you do not understand and ask whether it is possible for the judge to clarify for you.
- Understand what just happened. Representing yourself in court can be an emotional experience, and you may find it hard to stay focused in court when you are nervous or upset. But you do not want to leave the courtroom without understanding the outcome of the hearing or trial and what, if anything, you need to do next.