How to Represent Yourself in the Courtroom
We’ve already covered how to start a lawsuit and how to respond to a lawsuit. But what happens when you are actually at the courthouse? Although there is a lot that can happen between filing a complaint or an answer and actually being in a courtroom, it’s important to know how to act when you are in front of a judge.
The guidelines below assume you will be in court for an evidentiary hearing, which means a hearing where you will present evidence and interview witnesses (such as a trial). Some hearings, (such as oral argument regarding a motion) will not involve witness interviews or submitting evidence, but these guidelines will still be useful to anyone who needs to appear in court in front of a judge.
At the Courthouse
On the day of your hearing you should be prepared to present your case before the judge. You are, in all respects, acting as your own attorney and you should conduct yourself just as an attorney would to the extent possible. Here are some general guidelines:
- Get to court early. Parking may be inconvenient, you will likely have to go through security, and it may take time to find out which courtroom you are in. Make sure you give yourself time for all of these issues.
- Be respectful to the judge and the opposing party.
- Dress professionally. It is always surprising how many people show up to court in casual clothes. Although there is no dress code required for parties or witnesses, taking the time to dress professionally shows the judge that you are taking everything seriously and lends an air of respectability to your claims.
- Bring four copies of any evidence you plan to submit to the court (one for you, one for the judge, one for witnesses, and one for the opposing party).
- DO NOT argue with the opposing party or speak out of turn in front of the judge. Both sides will have a chance to present their arguments, cross examine witnesses, and make a closing statement. There is no need to interrupt the other party when it is their turn to speak.
- Do not talk over the judge, the opposing party, or any witnesses.
- If you do not understand something the judge has said or how to proceed, simply ASK! A judge will not give you legal advice, but they will inform you if you need help with procedural questions.
- When addressing the judge, it is always proper to stand up first. It is not necessary to stand when examining witnesses, but you may do so if you prefer. DO NOT roam around the courtroom like you may have seen on TV!
Steps at the Hearing
In most civil cases, the hearing or trial will typically proceed as follows:
- The judge will call your case by name and case number. When they do, you may approach the counsel table from the gallery. It is also possible that the judge will first want to have a meeting with both parties and/or their attorneys in the judge’s chambers to discuss the general nature of the case.
- Once the judge is sure everyone is ready and there are no procedural issues to deal with, they may ask the parties to make an opening statement (but some judges will want to proceed right to calling witnesses if it is a bench trial and you have submitted a trial memo). If you want to make an opening statement, but the judge seems to skip over this step, you can always ask to make one. Just keep it brief and summarize why you are entitled to relief.
- At this point, the judge may want both parties to submit all their exhibits and offer any relevant objections (they may also do this in the pretrial meeting). If you feel you have good cause to object to any evidence being entered into the record inform the judge of the specific exhibit you are objecting to and why (we will cover the most common objections in a new post in the near future). Do not be afraid to object! The worst that will happen is that the judge will overrule your objection and the evidence will be received (which is what will definitely happen if you do not object). Alternatively, a judge will admit all stipulated exhibits and require that any contested exhibits be entered during examination, at which point parties can object to their admission into the record.
- The judge will then tell the plaintiff to call their first witness. If you are the plaintiff, say, “Thank you, Your Honor. I call XXXX.” At this point, the plaintiff’s witness should proceed to the witness stand and he/she will be sworn in by the court clerk. Once sworn in, ask your questions (check out this article for a more detailed review of how to examine witnesses and enter exhibits). Also, keep in mind, that you should only have witnesses appear who can help prove or disprove an element of your claim or defense. Keep things as simple and direct as possible. During questioning, the judge may interject with their own questions.
- If the judge did not admit some or all of your exhibits at the beginning of the trial, you will need to make sure that your exhibits are admitted at the time they come up during witness testimony (regardless of which party has called the witness). For example, if you are interviewing a witness and ask them to review Exhibit 2, have the witness describe the exhibit, then say, “Your honor, I would like to admit Exhibit 2 into the record.” The judge will give the opposing party an opportunity to object and then make a decision on whether or not the exhibit is received. The fact that you have already handed your exhibits to the witness and the judge does not mean they are admitted, unless the judge has already clearly stated as much before trial!
- After the plaintiff has finished asking their witness questions, the defendant will have an opportunity to cross-examine the witness and ask him/her any questions that are relevant to any claim or defense. When the defendant is done with his cross examination, the plaintiff will have a chance to ask any follow up questions (called ‘redirect examination’), but they will likely be restricted to only asking about issues that were brought up in the defendant’s cross-examination (although the judge may grant a party some leniency in this regard if they are representing themselves). After both parties have asked all their questions, the plaintiff will call their next witness.
- Once the plaintiff has called all of their witnesses and introduced all their exhibits, they will inform the judge that they rest their case. If they still have exhibits that were not admitted during examination and they still want the judge to consider them, they will state that they have additional exhibits they would like to enter into the record.
- At this point, the defendant will have the chance to call witnesses and introduce exhibits. The plaintiff will have the chance to cross examine each witness and object as appropriate.
- After the defendant has called all of their witnesses and rested their case, the plaintiff will then have the chance to call rebuttal witnesses who can contradict the statements made by the defendant’s witnesses. These can be new witnesses or witnesses who initially testified during the presentation of the plaintiff’s case.
- Once rebuttal testimony is complete, the judge will ask for a closing statement. In your closing statement, inform the judge how you have proven each element of your claim or defense, citing the specific testimony or exhibit that illustrates your point. The judge will likely make a ruling on the spot, but may issue a written opinion in a few days if they feel they need time to review the evidence. If you are participating in a jury trial, the jury will deliberate and inform the judge when they have reached a decision.
Win or lose, if you follow the guidelines above, you can take comfort in the fact that you were able to competently represent yourself in court. As with most aspects of the legal system, proper courtroom procedure is not difficult to understand when explained without technical legal jargon. You can hold your head high, knowing that you did not let the legal system intimidate you and scare you away from pleading your case!