Attorney Adrian M. Madrone has teamed up with Law Professor Julie A. Helling’s acclaimed Internet Podcast Series Justice On Trial. In this episode, Adrian discusses how to prepare for representing yourself in court.
How to Represent Yourself in Court
Coming to court alone. Not everyone who comes to court comes with an attorney by their side. When someone is charged with a crime, they are guaranteed the right to representation by a lawyer, and the court will appoint a lawyer to those people who cannot afford one on their own. However, for other types of cases — things like divorce or child custody, speeding tickets, housing issues, or small claims — there is no right to a court-appointed lawyer. This means that people involved in those types of cases frequently go to court alone, without legal representation. Representing yourself in court is called appearing pro se. While appearing pro se can be intimidating and challenging, there are ways to put your best foot forward. Here are some tips.
Be Aware of Court Etiquette
First, be aware of basic court etiquette.
For starters, dress appropriately. It doesn’t have to be a full suit or gown, but dress in a way that shows you are taking things seriously—a button-up shirt, slacks and a tie, a modest business skirt, etc.
Know the Court Restrictions
When you arrive at court, be aware of any posted restrictions in the courtroom. For example, most courts do not allow beverages inside, and most expect you to remove hats or other non-religious headcoverings. If you have a phone, be sure to silence it before you go in. If you have small children, do your best to arrange childcare so you do not have to take the children to court, or at least have someone to help watch the children and take them outside if they get fidgety.
Refer to the Judge as “Your Honor”
Next, when the judge enters, stand up and wait to be seated until instructed. When you are called in front of the judge, refer to the judge as “Your Honor.” For example, if the judge says, “Ms. Jones, are you present in the courtroom?” Answer: “Yes, your honor.” This is more appropriate than Yes, sir or Yes, ma’am.
Know the Rules for Presenting Your Case
When you are presenting your case, be aware of the ground rules. Typically, the judge will indicate who gets to present their case first, and who goes second. If you are up second, wait your turn.
Do Not Interrupt
Do not interrupt the other side. Even if they are saying things you disagree with…do not interrupt. Bring a notepad with you, and keep notes of the things you disagree with, so you can give your side of the issues when it is your turn. Also, keep calm. Even if the other side is saying things that are upsetting, the court expects you to maintain your composure. If you cannot control yourself, and you repeatedly interrupt or raise your voice, the judge has the authority to hold you in contempt. You could be fined, or even jailed on a finding of contempt. Do not let your court hearing get to this point!
Prepare for the Hearing
Finally, although you are not expected to do the work of a trained attorney, do your best to prepare for your hearing in advance. That means researching the rules that apply and the options that might be available in court.
Research Your Options
Prepare in advance for what you are asking the court to do. In other words: know what you want. For example, if you go to court for a speeding ticket, you will generally have the options to contest, mitigate, or defer the ticket. Before you go to court, find out what these options mean, and decide in advance which one you will be asking for. Do not ask the judge for advice on which option is best for you.
Have Your Witnesses and Any Evidence Available
Finally, if you will be calling witnesses or presenting evidence, have those people or items with you and available once the hearing starts.
Going to court alone can be intimidating. But following some of these basic ground rules will help put you ahead of the game. This is attorney Adrian Madrone, and this ‘Know Your Rights’ segment has been brought to you by the Lustick, Kaiman & Madrone law firm, a full-service criminal defense firm in Bellingham, Washington.