Below are some tips for presenting your case to the court.
- Understand what will happen at the hearing.
- Don’t lie. Don’t exaggerate. Not even a little.
- Think about your audience.
- Tell the facts in a logical way. Tell a story.
- Be brief. Know what is important to tell and what is not.
- Present your evidence in a way that supports your story.
- Prepare for the unexpected and remain focused.
- Hold on to your original documents unless the judge asks for them.
- Observe a Real Trial
- Practice, practice, practice your presentation.
- What to do if the other side has an attorney?
- Prepare for the way you act when you are nervous.
Understand what will happen at the hearing.
There will be a judge, Judiciary staff, possibly a jury, and members of the public in the courtroom. Learn more about who will be in the courtroom and courtroom behavior.
The person who filed the lawsuit (the plaintiff) and the person who was sued (the defendant) are the parties to the lawsuit. Both are entitled to appear in court. Both parties can speak and present documents, drawings, photographs, and other evidence as well as witnesses.
- Once the trial begins, the plaintiff can make an opening statement. The opening statement is a general statement of your case.
- The defendant then may do the same.
- Next, the judge listens to the plaintiff’s testimony and evidence. If the plaintiff is self-represented, then the plaintiff will be sworn in as a witness.
- The defendant can cross examine the plaintiff at this time.
- The judge may also ask questions.
- Next, the defendant can present their side of the case.
- The plaintiff can cross examine.
- The judge may also ask questions.
- After the end of a party’s presentation of evidence, the opposing party may make a “motion for judgment.” This motion asks the court to automatically decide the case in favor of the party making the motion because the other party has not met the legal requirements of proving his or her case. If the judge rejects, or “denies,” the motion, the judge will proceed with the rest of the case.
- At the end of these presentations, the defendant, and then the plaintiff, may offer brief closing statements to sum up the case.
After both parties finish presenting evidence and give closing statements, the judge considers everything that was said or offered as exhibits. The judge will make a decision, known as a “judgment,” as soon as possible. In circuit court jury trials, the jurors discuss what they heard.
Don’t lie. Don’t exaggerate. Not even a little.
Judges listen to people tell their stories all day, every day and see all sorts of people. Many people tell the truth, some exaggerate, and some lie. Don’t be fooled into thinking that no one can prove that you are exaggerating a bit. A judge becomes good at hearing any “false notes” in a story. It is the judge’s job to decide who to believe, even if there is no “proof” that one side is lying. The judge is an expert in making these decisions. Don’t jeopardize your case by lying or exaggerating. If you lie on something small, the judge may not believe you when you tell the truth on a key point. Also, you may be given fines or other forms of punishment for lying during your hearing.
Think about your audience.
In most cases, your audience will be the judge (unless one of the parties asked for a jury trial in circuit court). Judges play a very important role in managing your case. The judge sets the stage for the case and explains what is going to happen. The judge will also ask questions. When the judge is the audience, remember to speak only to the judge and not the other party.
Tell the facts in a logical way. Tell a story.
Judges are people, too. It helps to present the facts in an easy-to-follow framework. Usually this means telling the facts in chronological order (in the order that they happened). It also means presenting the “headline” first -- start by giving the judge a quick summary at the beginning. For example, you might start with “The defendant has not paid me the $850 that she owes me for a dress that I made for her daughter. Here is what happened…”
Be brief. Know what is important to tell and what is not.
Not everything that happened between you and the other side is legally important. Everyone’s time is limited. Research the law in your case and make sure all of the legal points are addressed in your story. You can ignore parts of the story that are not legally relevant. For example, you may not want to tell the judge that you and the other side ”go way back” or that you babysat her daughter or that she has not paid you for other bills that you did not include in this court case. You can tell a more complete story later if the judge asks you to but start with proving what you need to prove under the law.
Present your evidence in a way that supports your story.
Don’t wait until the end of your story and then shove a bunch of papers at the judge. Organize and label the documents that you want to submit to the court. Put the documents in the order that they support your story. Mention the documents in order. When you mention a fact supported by a document, offer copies of the document to the judge and the other side. Make sure to bring enough copies for both the judge and the other side.
Be prepared to answer at least 5 questions about your evidence: WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHERE, WHEN and HOW. For example, if you are submitting a signed contract into evidence, be prepared to tell the court that you and the other party signed it on a certain date in a certain place.
- Each piece of evidence is called an “exhibit.”
- Submit your exhibits to the court by “moving” that they be admitted into evidence after you have explained the evidence by laying the proper foundation. A plaintiff may introduce an exhibit into evidence by saying something like, “Your Honor, I move that Plaintiff's Exhibit 'A' be introduced into evidence.”
- Be prepared to admit into evidence any documents describing the extent of the claim, such as repair bills.
If one party does not submit evidence correctly, the other party may “object” and provide the legal rules for doing so.
- A party may object immediately after the other party’s statement by saying, “Your Honor, I object.”
- Then, the party objecting must provide justification.
- The judge will then either “sustain” the objection (which means that the objection is correct) or “overrule” it (which means that the judge does not believe the objection is correct).
- It is important to state an objection whenever necessary because if there is no objection, then the party may lose the right to appeal that issue.
Prepare for the unexpected and remain focused.
What is the worst that the other side could say? What are the weakest parts of your case? Prepare for the other side to try to prove these. Don’t wait until after the hearing to say, “I should have said…” First, decide if the worst that the other side can say is legally relevant. If it is just a complaint about you, ignore it. If there is a weakness in your case, prepare by deciding how you will respond when they bring it up. Practice what you would say and ignore the emotions.
Hold on to your original documents unless the judge asks for them.
Only you can keep track of your documents. Your documents can be evidence in your case. Evidence could be any documents, such as receipts, photographs, contracts, or letters that support your claim. It can be easy to lose documents. Keep the original documents in your file. Give copies of important documents you plan on using as evidence to the court. Only pass along the original document if the judge requests it. Make sure you have a copy to keep for yourself and for the other side, if needed.
Observe a real trial.
In most cases, court proceedings are open to the public. If possible, take a few hours to sit in on a case to get an idea of what happens during a trial.
Practice, Practice, Practice your presentation.
Once you start, your story will flow easily, especially if you have a few notes in outline form and your documents are organized in the order you plan to mention them. Indicate on your notes which documents you have to prove which point. You may want to number your documents to help you keep track of them.
Put your notes on index cards or write them out in advance on a paper pad and bring this with you to your hearing. It is better to have a few key points written down than a “script” with every word you want to say. Remember that the judge will not have a script nor will the other side. You know your story. You just need a few reminders to make sure that you make all the necessary legal points.
If you are the plaintiff (the person who filed the complaint)…
- You will speak first.
- You will need to tell the judge your story.
- Remember, there are certain legal elements that you must prove.
- It may be useful to have the first few sentences written out in full and then to practice these in advance. This will help get you started.
If you are the defendant (person who was sued)…
- You will speak second.
- The other side will have laid out a series of facts. You do not have to repeat these facts. Assume that the judge heard and understood the facts, even if you do not like the way the other side said it.
- Focus your comments on your defense.
- Do not dispute every little issue -- focus on the most important points.
- Prepare yourself by looking at what the other side had to prove. That will help you determine which points are worth disputing.
- Don’t memorize answers to questions you expect to be asked. It will show and seem unnatural. Others may not believe you. Also, you may forget what you planned to say.
Practice in front of a trusted friend. If you can, pick a friend who has not heard you talk about your legal issue. It may be helpful to hear the comments of someone who is new to situation. Before you begin, tell your friend what you must prove (legally) or what must be proved against you. Then ask them to listen only to what you say and what your documents or witnesses can show. Ask them to forget anything else they know about the situation.
Give your friend a copy of the complaint. Ask them to give you harsh and unbiased feedback. Specifically:
- Did you tell or show them enough to persuade them that your version of the story is the more correct one?
- What areas that they find weak or unclear?
Based on their feedback, are you making assumptions about what the judge might know about your case? Do you need to provide a better “map” to help the judge follow the legal elements that you need to prove? The judge will be looking for certain information. Make it easy for the judge to see the important parts of your case.
What if the other side has an attorney?
Don’t Panic. If you have put together a good case, there is no reason why you should not be treated fairly by the court.
On the day of the hearing the most important person to control is you. Be polite. Attorneys can sometimes be intimidating. If an attorney appears to be angry or treats you poorly, this might just be part of the negotiation. Continue to act politely and say that you will be happy to attempt to settle the case, but you will not respond to attacks. You can complain to the judge if the attorney goes too far. But remember that the attorney is likely to appear before the judge more often than you do. Try not to be too sensitive but only complain if the attorney’s behavior is consistently bad. If you choose to complain, use a concrete example, and remain calm.
Prepare for the way you act when you are nervous.
It is important to stay calm when in court. However, appearing in court is a cause for anxiety, even for seasoned attorneys. Prepare for the way you act when you are nervous.
Know what to expect.
Read all the information about the court on this website and the Maryland Courts website. If possible, plan to take time off and go to court. Figure out how to get to the court, and plan for any security requirements and restrictions.
Watch other cases in the court for an hour or so to see what happens. Ideally you should find out when the same judge assigned to your case will be sitting on the bench or the same type of case as yours is being heard. Take notes. Watch carefully to see what works and what the problems are.
Have your papers ready to present.
Nothing makes you more nervous than having to sort through your papers to find the one receipt that will prove your case. Eliminate this cause of stress by organizing your documents.
At least 2 days before the hearing, find all your documents. Make at least 2 copies of each document. Attach the copies to the originals with paper clips. Stack the papers in the order that you plan to mention them in your story. You may even want to number each document. Put them in a file folder and label the file folder. Add your notes. Maybe use a binder clip to hold the documents together and attached to the file. Put the folder by the door or in your car so you do not forget it.
Plan to arrive early.
Rushing in the door makes everybody (even attorneys) nervous. Make sure that you do not have this extra pressure.
Once you are prepared, think about something else.
Once you have done your best to prepare, force yourself to think about something pleasant. Think about your upcoming vacation. Think about your sister’s birthday party. Think about the joke somebody told you yesterday. Thinking about other topics will help you to remain calm.
Prepare for the way you act when you are nervous.
If you can’t stop talking…
- Use notes on what you need to say.
- After the key points, add a note to yourself that will say STOP.
- When you see the note, stop talking and take at least 2 deep breaths.
- If someone asks you a question, answer. Otherwise, wait.
If you get tongue-tied…
- Write short reminder notes to yourself (not a script).
- Review your notes before walking into the courtroom.
- Practice saying the first few sentences.
- Practice telling your story aloud until it is very familiar (do not memorize a script).
If you lose your focus…
- Write up short reminder notes to yourself in advance about the key points in your story.
- Look at your notes periodically.
- Type or write your notes in big letters, or bold/underline key words.
If you talk too fast…
- Write a bold note to yourself that says “SLOW” in my presentation notes. Put this note after your first 2 key points.
- Force yourself to stop and breathe after the first 4 sentences, whether you need to breathe or not.
- Count slowly while breathing.
- Listen to yourself. Stop talking if you have covered all the issues in the notes.
- Watch the judge’s face. If the judge looks confused, slow down. Maybe say, “I am nervous. Can I repeat anything?”
If you have a dry mouth…
- Arrange to have a drink of water before going into eh courtroom. (Bring a water bottle or locate the bathroom or water fountain.)
- Have a single piece of hared candy under my tongue to help lubricate my mouth when I need it, but be discreet about this. Do not let the candy be distracting.