What you should do to prepare for your upcoming court date depends on what type of case you have. In this section we give you general guidelines for how to best prepare yourself for court. It is possible that you will see something that does not apply to your case. For example, if you have a divorce case, you can ignore the suggestions about preparing to pick a jury. If you have a small claims case, you do not have to worry about the rules of evidence. So keep in mind that these are general suggestions and may not apply to every case.
Before Your Court Date
- Read your court papers. Understand what each form asks and how the other side has responded.
- Make a list of your reasons for each request. Write down the answers the other side gives to each request.
- Observe hearings ahead of time, if you can, in front of the same judge or for the same type of case as yours. Watch lawyers and how they act in the courtroom, how they speak to the judge, how they ask questions, etc.
- Research any remaining legal issues in your case.
- Review all discovery (if there has been any).
- If you are going to have a jury trial, make sure you understand the rules for selecting a jury. Prepare the questions you want to ask prospective jurors.
- For a formal trial, outline your opening statement.
- Prepare all your evidence.
One of the most important steps you can take when preparing to go to court is preparing your “evidence.” Evidence is information a party can present in court to prove their case.
Evidence can be in 2 main forms:
1. Witness testimony (people):
- The party involved in the lawsuit;
- Other people who have direct and relevant information about the case;
- People who keep relevant records; or
- Experts qualified to given an opinion about some aspect of the case.
Usually, any witnesses must be present in court for the hearing or trial.
2. Exhibits (things):
- Documents or objects used to prove your case (or disprove the other side’s);
- Photographs; or
- Records: police records, medical records, bills, appraisals, school records, financial statements, etc.
To prepare your evidence:
- Review all your evidence and sort it and organize it so that, even when you get nervous and rushed, you can find what you are looking for.
- Make sure your witnesses are ready, not just for questions you will ask them but questions the other side may ask.
- Outline questions to ask your witnesses. Make sure you know what your witnesses will say. And, in your outline, make notes about any documents or other evidence you need to ask your witnesses about.
- Outline questions to ask the other side’s witnesses. Try to predict what they will say and be prepared with follow-up questions or documents to ask them about.
- Research and consider likely evidence issues that may come up.
Researching the rules of evidence
There are rules of evidence that everyone must follow. These rules exist to make sure that the judge gets reliable, relevant, and accurate evidence to consider when making decisions about your case.
Some of the most important rules are:
- Generally, people can only talk about what they know first-hand – what they themselves saw, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted. (There are some exceptions to this rule.)
- The other side has the right to cross-examine anyone whose words (whether written or spoken) are being considered.
- All testimony must be relevant information.
There are many laws that set rules for what evidence can be used in court. Together, these laws are called the California Evidence Code. You will have to follow these rules even if you are self-represented. You will not get any special treatment just because you are not a lawyer. And the judge and the court staff cannot help you prepare or present your case.
In addition to reading the Evidence Code, you can also go to your public law library and ask the librarian for books that talk about and explain the rules of evidence.
Your Day in Court
The following guidelines should always be followed in court:
- Dress neatly and respectfully, as if you were going to a job interview.
- Take all the papers that have been filed or served and any other documents that you will need to show to the judge.
- Take blank paper and a pen.
- Be on time. Allow extra time for traffic or other possible delays. (If you are delayed or unable to attend the hearing due to a car breakdown, sudden illness, or other emergency, contact the clerk for the court department where your hearing will take place on or before your hearing time.)
- Turn off your cell phone or pager when you enter 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.
- Speak clearly and loudly enough that the judge can hear you. Speak only when it is your turn.
- When you speak to the judge, act respectfully and call him or her “your honor.” NEVER interrupt the judge.
- Summarize your point of view. Explain why the judge should approve (or not approve) each request you have made.
- If you get nervous in court, look at your list. This will help you to speak to the judge.
- If you are asking for court orders, make sure that the judge makes an order on EACH item you have asked for.
- Do not depend on the judge to remember everything you have asked for. If something has been overlooked, tell the judge.
- Answer all of the judge’s questions and stop talking immediately if the judge interrupts you.
- If you do not understand something, say that you do not understand. Someone will try to explain it for you.
- Do not leave the courtroom unsure of what the judge ordered. Make sure you understand the court order and also what you need to do when the hearing is over. You may have to prepare an order for the judge to sign. You may have to wait around for the judge to sign an order. Just ask if you are not sure.
from California Courts