It’s unlikely that you have spent a lot of time in a courtroom. What you see in the movies is often not accurate. Learning what to expect in the courtroom and appropriate courtroom behavior will help you fit in and feel more comfortable. That way, you can focus on presenting your case.
Who will be in the room? The trial will be in a public courtroom. This means that you can sit in the back and see the other cases being heard while you wait for your case to be called. It also means that others waiting for their cases may also be present during your case.
The judge and Judiciary staff will be there as well, including a bailiff to keep order. There will not be a court reporter. All testimony is recorded.
Sometimes there will be a jury, but one of the parties will need to have requested this. For small claims cases, there is no jury. Only the circuit court has jury trials. If you request a jury trial (and your case is eligible for a jury trial) and the case was filed in District Court, the case will be transferred to Circuit Court.
While you are waiting in the back of the courtroom, pay attention. This is an opportunity to learn about the process (and the judge) before your hearing starts. Even though it’s not your turn, avoid activities that may interrupt or disturb what’s going on in the courtroom. Examples include reading the newspaper, listening to music, working on your laptop, using your cell phone, chatting with other people, etc.
Dress neatly and professionally. You will likely see a wide array of different attire in the courtroom. Formal dress is not required but dress neatly and professionally. If you had to come to court directly from work, consider mentioning that to the judge. The judge will understand. Avoid clothing, such as t-shirts, with messages.
Be on time. Arrive early if you can. Make every effort to get to court on time. Arrange for childcare if possible. Arrange for reliable transportation. Plan on having someone else drive if you have a suspended license. Someone will notice. Figure out how to get to the courthouse, including where to find parking. Make these arrangements well in advance of your hearing.
Place everything you need to take with you to court in a location where you can easily find them. To plan for any problems, carry the court clerk’s telephone number with you as you travel on the day of the hearing.
If you cannot arrive on time, call and ask the clerk what can be done. If you are too late, you may ask for a “continuance” (a postponement). The court will decide whether you will be given the chance to have your case heard on another day.
If you know a few days in advance that you cannot attend your hearing, immediately call the clerk’s office and ask how to request a “continuance” (postponement). Keep notes on the date, time, the name of the person with whom you speak and what is said. You will need to submit the request in writing. Make sure that you include a description of the good reason for making the request.
The court may refuse to change the date. If the date is rescheduled, the other side must be notified again.
There can be serious consequences if you are late or miss your hearing.
- If you are the plaintiff, this means the judge may dismiss the case.
- If you are the defendant, the judge is likely to find against you if the plaintiff shows up and can prove their case.
Be aware of any security and health screening requirements and restrictions and plan accordingly.
- You will go through a metal detector. Don't bring sharp metal objects with you to the hearing (e.g., knives, including a Swiss army knife, or other weapon-like objects, knitting needles, scissors, firearm, illegal drugs.)
- Many courts do not allow cell phones or cameras. Look up the cell phone policy for your court.
- Some courthouses do not allow outside food.
Avoid distracting behavior.
- Turn off or silence your cell phone or any other device that can make noise and interrupt the proceedings.
- Don’t chew gum.
Be respectful to everyone, including the judge, Judiciary staff, the other side, witnesses, etc.
- Small claims court is more informal, but respectful behavior is still expected.
- Don’t interrupt anyone.
Exercise self-control, no matter what is said in the courtroom.
- Don’t argue with the opposing party, their attorney, the judge, or Judiciary staff, even if you are upset by your case.
- Don’t react to the witnesses’ answers or to questions to indicate your displeasure, such as make faces, roll your eyes, etc.
- Learn more about staying calm.
Speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard by the judge and the other side.
When speaking to the judge, refer to the judge as “Your Honor” and speak with respect. Stand whenever you talk. The only time you should be speaking to a judge about a case is at trial, with the other party present. You can ask the judge questions about technical procedures during the trial.
Answer any questions with respect.
- Ask the questioner to repeat or clarify any questions that you do not understand.
- Direct your answers to the person who asked the question. Make eye contact with them.
- Answer questions even if they seem stupid or foolish to you.
- Don’t argue with the questioner.
- Don’t give flippant answers.