5 Tips For Representing Yourself In Court
Monique Bolsajian Graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara
Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Many people choose to represent themselves in court hearings, mostly because they believe they can’t afford to hire an attorney.
For the record, we don't think that's true. People who have lawyers in court statistically have better outcomes. Our prices start at just $249.
In criminal cases, for example, public defenders are appointed to defendants free of charge, and defendants should take advantage of that resource if they can’t afford to hire their own attorney.
If your case isn’t in criminal court, you might still want to consult with an attorney to get a better idea of whether or not you feel comfortable representing yourself.
If you do decide to represent yourself in court, here are some important tips to keep in mind leading up to your court date.
1. Make sure the judge sees you in the best professional light.
Even if your hearing is via video call, you want to make sure that you are dressed as professionally as possible.
Whether you like it or not, people (even judges) have biases. And sometimes, they make judgments about you based on what you're wearing.
If your hearing is via video, make sure the judge can literally see you. People look best on Zoom, and other video conferecing tools, when they place their computer, tablet or phone camera at eye level. So prop your device up on some books if needed.
Experts recommend placing a lamp to the left or right of your face. If you don't have a lamp, an overhead light can work. Don't sit or stand in front of a window. The sunlight will dominate, and the judge won't be able to see your face.
2. Know what you want
The judge will likely give you time to explain your situation and the orders you’re asking for. It’s important that you go over what you want to say in court before your court date.
This doesn’t mean you need to memorize a script. Just have a basic idea of your main points, and understand the specific details of the orders you’ve requested.
If you need a refresher on the orders you requested, you should review the court documents you have filed for your case. If someone helped you prepare your documents, you might want to go over the documents with them to make sure you understand them.
You might want to practice explaining the orders you want to a friend or family member to get more comfortable before explaining the orders in your hearing.
The judge will probably have questions as well, or they might ask you to clarify some points. Try to stay concise when answering their questions, and be sure to allow them to ask their question in full before starting to answer.
If you’re confused about your documents or orders that you’ve requested, Court Buddy can put you in touch with an attorney who can help.
3. Organize your documents beforehand
Make sure you have all of the documents that you need prior to your hearing. Make sure they are right next to you, in an organized fashion.
It is very important that you bring your copies of all of the paperwork you have filed throughout the duration of this case.
If you filed any Witness or Exhibit lists, be sure to bring them with you to your hearing.
You will want to review and make notes about each witness and exhibit before your hearing. Your goal is to be able to explain what each one is, and why they are important to your case. The judge will likely ask you questions about each.
If you have witnesses, you will want to prepare the questions you want to ask them in advance.
If you are bringing witnesses to an in-person trial, make sure they know the correct date, time, address, and courtroom ahead of time.
If you are bringing witnesses to a virtual trial, make sure you inform them of any instructions you have received from court staff about how they are to participate in the hearing.
If you are bringing exhibits to an in-person trial, make sure you have at least 3 copies: one for you, one for the other party, and one for the judge.
When the judge asks to see your exhibits, do not walk over to the judge to hand them your exhibits. The deputy will come and get the exhibits from you and take them to the judge.
If you are bringing exhibits to a virtual trial, make sure to follow all instructions from court staff about submitting exhibits, and be aware of any additional procedures you may need to follow.
4. Bring supplies
Make sure to bring a notebook and several pens with you to your hearing. If your hearing is virtual, have a notepad and pen on hand so you can easily take notes.
When it’s the other party’s turn to speak, you might want to make notes about things that they say in case you want to address their points when it’s your turn to speak.
If the judge decides they cannot make orders by the end of the hearing, you might need to go back to court later on. Be sure to have your planner or calendar with you so that you can easily write down and schedule any following hearings.
If the judge decides that they will be able to make your final orders by the end of your hearing, you will want to take notes when the judge makes your final orders. Write down everything the judge says when they explain your final orders.
Sometimes court staff will give you a typed summary of the orders the judge explained in court, but sometimes those summaries are incomplete. This is why it’s important that you write down everything the judge says.
It is sometimes the litigants’ responsibility (either you, the other party, or your attorneys’ responsibility) to write up final court documents (or judgments) with the judge’s orders on them, so you’ll want to have notes to refer to when that time comes.
You may also want to bring a bottle of water with you to the courtroom.
Note that you cannot eat food while in the courtroom or during your hearing.
5. Know when to talk, and when not to.
It’s important to pay attention to the judge when they speak during your hearing. They will often give you instructions at the start of your hearing so that you know when it is your turn to speak and ask questions.
The judge will likely give both you and the other party designated times to speak and explain your situation.
If it is the other party’s turn to speak and they say something you disagree with, do not interrupt them.
You can address this disagreement the next time it is your turn to speak.
If you feel like your hearing is wrapping up and you want to ask a question or make a point before the judge makes their ruling, you should ask the judge if you can speak.
Note that you shouldn’t just start speaking. You should wait until the judge has finished speaking, and then politely ask the judge if you can make an additional note.
If the judge is making their ruling and it looks like they’re leaving out an important point that you wanted them to rule on, ask them if you can interject and then explain your concern.
Again, ask them before you begin making your request.
Bonus Tip: If You Have a Language Barrier
Language barriers are a common obstacle to accessing justice.
If you or someone you know has a court hearing coming up and they are not comfortable speaking or understanding English, there are options.
You should contact your court clerk’s office and see what the process is to request an interpreter for your hearing. Some courts have interpreters on hand, but other courts will need to put in requests for interpreters to come in from other areas.
It can be a lengthy process.
Be sure to contact the clerk’s office as early as possible to ensure arrangements are made for an interpreter in your case.
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