How to Act in Court: Hearings, Conferences, Motions, and More!
How to Prepare for a Court Hearing
Court hearings can be intimidating, especially if you're representing yourself. However, there are steps you can take beforehand to prepare for your hearing and decrease your anxiety. Knowing your case inside and out and having all your evidence organized and neat can enhance your preparedness and decrease your anxiety.
Organizing Your Documents
Make copies of all the documents you filed with the court.Make sure you have your copy of all the documents you filed with you, as well as extra copies to distribute to the judge or the other side if they don't have their own copies handy.
- Bring your originals plus at least three copies. Make a master list of all the documents you have so you can keep track of them.
- For example, if your case is about child support, you would need to bring your child support worksheets along with check stubs, bank statements, and other financial documents that backed up the amounts you'd entered on your worksheet.
Compile a binder or expanding file for all your papers.You can organize your documents chronologically, alphabetically, by subject matter, or using whatever method makes the most sense to you.
- Use tabs to mark off separate subjects or sections. You might also consider using different colored markers or flags to indicate particularly important documents, or documents you anticipate you'll need to access more than once throughout the trial.
- To include documents, use folders or sleeves so you aren't punching holes directly in the document itself to secure it in the binder. This also means you won't have to open and close binder rings multiple times during court.
Include all documents that support your argument.If you have any additional documents such as bills that support any claims you've made in your petition or other documents you've filed, include those in your binder.
Review your organizational system several times.Make sure you can find anything you need immediately without having to shuffle through papers or spend a lot of time hunting through your files.
- If your system doesn't work or doesn't feel natural to you, change it to something that does. Your system is for your benefit, not for anybody else's. It's important that you know how to find everything you need with minimal disruption.
Preparing Your Evidence
Take photos of any physical evidence.If something is too large to bring into the courtroom with you, take photos to show to the judge.
- For example, if part of your damages include physical damages to your house, you should take pictures of the damaged portion of your house before the trial. Clearly you wouldn't be able to bring your house to the courtroom, nor would the judge and the other party make a trip to your house to look at the damage in person.
Put physical evidence in a bag or box to secure it.Smaller items should be separated from each other, labeled, and secured.
- This ensures that the evidence is preserved in roughly the same state you need it to be before you show it to the judge. For example, if you're suing the defendant because he spilled soup on your priceless painting, you should cover the soiled painting if you want to take it with you to court. You also should take photos of the damage in case the soup soaks into the canvas and takes on a different appearance as time passes.
Review courtroom rules to make sure your evidentiary items are permitted.If you have an item you intend to use as evidence that isn't permitted under courtroom rules, you may need to make other arrangements if you want to show it to the judge.
- For example, suppose you are suing the defendant for assault and you allege she took your letter opener off your desk, waived it around in your face, and then threw it at you. If you wanted to bring the letter opener to court to show it to the judge, you should first make sure it would be permitted in the courthouse. Some courthouse security teams might consider the letter opener a weapon and confiscate it at the door when you went through the metal detectors.
Gathering Your Witnesses
Make sure your witnesses understand when and where they need to be.If necessary, consider meeting your witnesses near the courthouse before the hearing and going in as a group.
- Let your witnesses know as soon as possible when the hearing is scheduled so they have as much advance notice as possible.That way they can make any arrangements that might be necessary such as scheduling time off work or hiring a babysitter for their kids.
- Avoid choosing close friends or relatives as witnesses, unless you need them as witnesses to your character or reputation. If someone has a close relationship to you, the judge will only assume that they're biased towards you and are not objective.
- To make sure your witnesses appear at trial, have subpoenas issued for them.A subpoena also can help your witnesses get off work by providing proof to their employer that they are required in court.
Review with your witnesses the questions you intend to ask them.You and your witnesses should practice the questions you want to ask them at trial to make sure they understand how to answer.
- Although you have time to practice with your witnesses, try to avoid coaching them to say something in particular. They will be under oath and must answer honestly. If you give them prepared or canned answers to your questions, they won't come off as authentic at trial (even if they are).
- You might want to write out the important questions ahead of time so you have a list to follow in court, but don't be afraid to stray beyond the list of the witness says something that you think might be important to elucidate further.
Discuss possible questions the other side might ask.Brainstorming possible questions the other side might ask you or your witnesses can help you prepare for the hearing.
- You should have found out if the other side will be calling witnesses during the pre-trial discovery process. If you know of them, you also can brainstorm the questions you'll ask those witnesses.
- Since you more than likely also will be your own witness, try to come up with questions you might be asked at the hearing.Rehearse your answers to these questions so you'll be able to stick to the facts and keep your cool at the hearing.
- With your own witnesses as well as those from the other side, remember the cardinal rule: Never ask a witness a question if you don't know what the answer will be. Stick to the questions for which you've prepared.
Find out if your witnesses have ever been in court before.If any of your witnesses have ever been in court before, they may be able to help you with the rules and procedures of the courtroom.
- Witnesses who've had prior court experiences will have a better understanding of what's expected of them and generally will be more reliable on the stand.
Getting Yourself Ready
Consider making a dry run.Especially if your county courthouse is large, you might want to go before your hearing so you can figure out where to park and where your courtroom is before the big day.
- You want to try to get to the courtroom and be seated at least 15 minutes before your hearing is set to start, so leave plenty of time to get where you need to be.
- If you decide to make a dry run, try to do it on the same day of the week and around the same time as your own hearing. This is the best way to mimic traffic and replicate the time it will take you to get in and out of the courthouse.
Get everything together the night before.Have everything you need for court organized and ready the night before so you don't have to rush around looking for things that morning.
- You should wear clean, conservative clothing. You don't have to wear a suit, but your attire should be professional and presentable.Get your outfit ready the night before and lay it out along with shoes and any other accessories so you don't waste time in the morning searching for something you need or trying on different clothes.
Make sure you know your case inside and out.Study everything you've filed with the court and all your supporting documents to make sure you know your case and everything you plan to present.
- Write out an outline of what you are asking for and why, and include any documents or evidence you have to support each statement you make.
- Study your outline thoroughly before the hearing, and put it in the front of your binder so you can easily access it and view it at any time during the hearing.
Practice your opening and closing statements in front of a mirror.Especially if speaking in public makes you nervous, you might try rehearsing your statements until you are comfortable with what you want to say.
- Make notes for yourself on index cards to keep yourself on track.You might also include encouraging notes on the cards – just make sure to write them in a different color ink, or along the side of the card rather in line with your notes, so you don't accidentally read them out loud.
- Judges appreciate statements that are concise and clear. Don't worry about being eloquent or making appeals to emotion – just stick with the facts and explain why the judge should rule in your favor.
- You might want to practice your statement before friends or family members as well. They can point out verbal tics you might not notice, or let you know how well you enunciate and whether they can hear you clearly.
- Keep in mind that telling your story in court is not like telling your story to a friend or family member.You must keep to the facts rather than embellishing them, and avoid any statements that are emotional rather than factual. While your emotions may have a lot to do with how you act or react in a given situation, they have no role in legal analysis.
- If you cannot express yourself well in English, prepare with someone who can and have them speak on your behalf. You may need to get the court's permission in advance to do this.
Review the court's rules.Check the rules for the courthouse and for your particular judge to make sure you don't take anything with you that isn't allowed.
- For example, typically you can't bring food or drinks into the courtroom. Unless you have a medical necessity, leave any such items at home or in your car to avoid having them confiscated.
- Any portable electronic devices you have such as mobile phones or laptops should be turned off or silenced at a minimum. If you can afford to leave them at home entirely, that's a better choice.
Get a good night's rest.Even though you probably will be nervous, do your best to relax and get some solid sleep the night before so you are well rested for your hearing.
Video: Preparing for the first hearing
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