Economic conditions and the expense of quality lawyers have placed many people into a position where they’re now representing themselves, particularly when they get the sticker shock of a national average over $300.00 per hour for that lawyer. About 50% of all family law litigants are now self represented. So what do you do when you want to or have to go to court on a case without an attorney? Public defenders aren’t available in the civil courts and other than traffic court, the civil courtrooms are where we see the highest percentage of self represented litigants. Here’s your list of do’s and don’ts for if and when you need to access the courts and DIY.
1. Turn your cell phone off before you even enter the courtroom. That’s off, not on vibrate or silent. Don’t even think of pulling it out of your pocket to text, e-mail or read this article. It’ll be a little late for that anyway.
2. Get to your courtroom 10 minutes ahead of time. If told to sit and wait until your case is called, do exactly that. Sit and keep your mouth shut. Although judges and lawyers might be late, they are attempting to facilitate the smooth operation of the courts, or reading the sports page, betting on the World Series, getting a tee time, talking with old friends or sneaking a cigarette somewhere. These people are all human and participate in the same distractions and diversions from work sometimes as you and I do but once court is in session, its all businss.
3. Don’t bring anybody with you for emotional or moral support. Courtrooms are often so full that those who don’t have a case pending are told to wait outside. We’re all grown ups. This is your case and nobody else’s. I’ve been in courtrooms where that friend brought for moral support mouthed off spontaneously. Want the judge, bailiff and clerk to all be against you? That’s a really good step in that direction.
4. Dress like you’re going to court, not like you’re going to the gym or corner bar. Hats or sunglasses worn into a courtroom automatically label you as a knucklehead with the bailiff who will tell you to remove them. Label yourself a knucklehead with the bailiff and you’re half way to to labeling yourself as a knucklehead with the judge that’s going to hear your case. Never, ever, ever consume alcohol or smoke weed before court. You’ll stink the place up, be taken into custody to blow or pee, get held in contempt and do some jail time. I’ve seen more people held in contempt for those reasons than all other reasons combined.
5. NEVER interrupt the judge and try not to interrupt the opposing party. Address the judge as “your honor” without raising your voice, gesturing or becoming emotional. NEVER lean over the bench to make your point. You’re entering the judge’s space. Over the years, I’ve known several that kept a gun at reach. In case you don’t want to follow my advice and want learn the hard way and lean over the bench anyway, a well trained bailiff will move directly behind you. He has mace, a taser and a loaded gun. He’s usually a pretty big guy too.
6. Don’t decide at the 11th hour that you want a continuance. You have been given ample time to prepare for your hearing or trial. You better have a very good reason for wanting a continuance and that reason is usually required to be in writing with proper notice to the other side. No phone call to anybody involved with the case at the 11th hour is proper notice for moving for a continuance.
7. To assure the presence of your witnesses, place them under subpoena. That way, if they fail to show, you have very good cause for moving for a continuance.
8. Don’t bring the affidavit of a witness. Its a hearsay document and inadmissible. How can somebody cross examine an affidavit?
9. Bring all documents in connection with your case ,be fully familiar with them and have them in order and labeled as exhibits. Judges appreciate organization and consideration.
10. Never leave the courtroom without a copy of the court’s order for that day. That order lays a roadmap, setting any future hearing dates, issues to be heard on the next court date and any deadlines.
These 10 points certainly aren’t exhaustive but they’ll operate to make your decision to represent yourself less stressful, less time consuming and perhaps educational. A good judge will treat you and your case like its the most important case in the courtroom. Be prepared and reciprocate.