As intimidating as the words ‘court hearing’ are, the nervousness, fear and uncertainty skyrocket even further when it’s your first appearance in court. Whether you sued or someone filed against you, expect your first court hearing to be the beginning of a lengthy process.
The litigation process involves multiple hearings and heaps of paperwork! When you know what to expect for your first court hearing, your anxiety level will go down. It may not disappear, but it’ll decrease. So, for your own peace of mind, prepare yourself well for the first hearing and the rest will be so much easier. Here’s what you need to know before heading in.
Use the first court hearing to map out the process of your case so you’ll understand how to navigate the court system and strategize. If you’re the defendant, you might be scheduled for a hearing when you receive your summons and complaint or petition. In divorce cases, in particular, the court takes more control than in other civil cases. So don’t be surprised if your summons comes with a hearing date.
Further, when there’s an attorney on the other side, and they want to proceed quickly, your summons may also come with a hearing date. But don’t let that intimidate you. If you need a continuance or an extension of time to respond, move for it.
If you’re the plaintiff, you may have to schedule a hearing yourself. In many, or even in most civil cases, a hearing may not be set until a motion is filed. The hearing date is usually set to take place after the defendant has responded to the complaint.
Your first hearing is a time when the judge and the court is getting familiar with your case. In divorce cases, you can expect to get a sense of direction regarding the timeline of crucial events and actions that will happen as a part of the process. That is because the purpose of the first hearing is to make both parties understand the possible course of the case. In other civil cases, you’re freer to determine the direction of the case. Go at it.
How You Should Dress
Before we dive into the details, you should know that dressing appropriately for your first court hearing is extremely important. A general rule is to expect a formal environment at the court. Whether you’re going as a participant in a case, a witness, or even an observer, wearing appropriate attire will show respect for the judge and the court.
Here are a few clothing items that you must avoid wearing at a court hearing:
- Ripped jeans
- Baggy pants falling below your hips
- See-through shirt
- Flip flops
- Clothes exposing your underwear
- Clothes with illegal, political or otherwise inappropriate words or emblems
- Clothes that promote violence, profanity, drug use, or any inappropriate acts
Where to Go When You Arrive at the Court
Now, this solely depends on the type of case you have. The summons you received or the information provided you by a judicial assistant should provide all the information you require to get you to the right place. In for some reason you don’t have that information, be sure you go to the right courtroom.
You should know whether your case is in District Court or Superior Court. Your first stop will be the respective office. If you aren’t sure, you may seek help at the information desk where you’ll find a list of cases scheduled for hearing for the day and even the courtroom where your case will be called.
In the courtroom, you may have to wait. Depending on how busy your local court is, you may have to sit through one, two three, or even 15 cases before yours is called.
Will the Court Staff Help Me?
It’s natural to feel anxious or even confused at your first court hearing. You might be tempted to get help from anyone who seems willing to assist. Unfortunately, for ethical and legal reasons, court clerk staff can only give you limited help.
Here are a few things the court staff can help you with. They can…
- Address your concerns about the general court process and explain how it works
- Provide court forms and general guidance on completing them
- Answer questions about the deadlines set by the court
- Deliver general information from your case docket
On the other hand, below are things the court staff can’t help you with. They cannot…
- Suggest whether you should or shouldn’t bring your case to the court
- Give you any kind of legal advice
- Present an opinion of what will happen when you bring your case to the court
- Talk about your case to a judge
- Help you talk to the judge outside of the court
- Modify a judge’s order
- Recommend you a lawyer
What to Do After Entering the Courtroom
Once you enter the courtroom, consider seating yourself in the front. The judge will enter when the court starts and sit on the bench located at the front of the courtroom. The court clerk usually sits to the judge’s front, ready to record everything that happens in each case in a case file.
When it’s time for your case to be heard, the clerk will call out the name of your case. Since you’ll be representing yourself, you’ll have to go to the front. Generally, the person who has filed the case, the plaintiff, stands or sits to the clerk’s left while the defendant stands or sits to his right. Some courts have gotten away from this, so when in doubt, ask the clerk where to stand. Or if there is a lawyer on the other side, let him or her go first, and you sit opposite.
General Behavior in Court
Throughout the hearing, you must address the judge directly and avoid interrupting or arguing with the other party at all cost. You must also make sure that your emotions are in control when you’re speaking to the court. Always speak loud and clear enough to be heard by everyone in the courtroom. You may expect a court reporter or a tape recorder to record everything that will be said in the court.
Both you and the other party will have to give a self-introduction, saying your name and whether you’re the plaintiff or defender. You should address the judge as your honor throughout the hearing.
The Plaintiff Goes First
If you’re the plaintiff, you’ll have to speak first. Typically, this is when you’ll share your side of the story with no interruption allowed from the opponent’s side. The judge may ask questions once you’ve finished speaking. Unfortunately, some judges don’t want to hear argument. In fact, many seem to make up their minds before they enter the room. If this is the case, and the judge seems reluctant to hear your argument, say politely that you’ve prepared an argument that you would like to give. Keep insisting on it. If he doesn’t give in, and you’ve brought a court reporter, you may have grounds for an appeal if the hearing goes the wrong way.
The Defendant Goes Next
As a defendant, you’ll first listen to what the plaintiff has to say. Then, you’ll speak. Try to address the points the plaintiff made. You should already know the points because you will have prepared beforehand. Right? If the judge seems reluctant to hear what you have to say, politely insist that you be given an opportunity to defend yourself. If he doesn’t give in, be sure you have a transcript the case goes wrong.
The Judge’s Order
Once the hearing is over, all the terms that the parties agreed to or the court decided should be addressed in the judge’s order. The judge will sign the order. Once the judge signs the order, it’s sent to the clerk’s office for an official stamp and date. That is the date of the actual order.
Since your first court hearing will determine the course of your case, you should be vigilant and go prepared. That’s the key to ensuring a smooth process.