Tips for Representing Yourself in Court
1. Don't Miss Your Court Date.
Court is not an appointment that can be missed or rescheduled. If you miss your court date (including being late) for a criminal case or contempt matter, a warrant may be issued for your arrest. If the hearing is not a criminal matter, you will likely lose the case by default. If you have a serious reason why you cannot go to court on the assigned day, call the Judge's clerk. Usually you need to file papers requesting a change, or get the other side to agree to change the date.
If you are the defendant or respondent in a case (someone else started the case) and you agree with the other side's requests or don't have any defense, you may think there is no point in going to court. Not going can be dangerous because you might not fully understand everything that can or will be ordered in your absence. It is best to get legal advice before deciding not to go to the hearing.
2. Allow Plenty of Time to Get to Court.
You should arrive at the courtroom 30 minutes before your hearing time. Consider the traffic, weather, parking, frequency of the bus or light rail, and allow plenty of extra time. You may need to wait in lines for weapons screening, and finding the correct building and courtroom can take time. Being late can make you anxious and unable to do your best. The hearing might last longer than you think, so parking at a meter is not a good idea.
3. Bring your files.
You should have a file with copies of all papers you and the other side have filed with the court, or given to each other. Bring a notepad and pens for taking notes during the hearing.
4. Bring an outline of what you want to say.
As you cover each point, check it off. Before you conclude, look back to see if you covered each point. The Judge will only want to hear information that is needed to evaluate the requests made in the court papers.
Practice explaining your claim to a friend. If your friend doesn't understand you or find your argument convincing, think about how to improve your presentation.
5. Bring your evidence.
Sometimes a court hearing is a trial where you bring all your witnesses and evidence. Other times the hearing has a different purpose. Read all notices and orders you received about the hearing carefully. If you are not sure what will happen at a hearing, or you are not sure what to bring to the hearing, get help right away. You can call court administration or the Judge's clerk. There are limits on how much they can help you, but you can start there. If you come to the hearing unprepared, you could lose your case or be fined. However, coming unprepared is better than not coming at all.
If you are supposed to bring evidence and witnesses to the hearing, bring everything. If you have documents or pictures, bring the original item and 2 copies (original for the court, one copy for you, one copy for the other side.) Ask your witnesses to arrive early and dress nicely. Some documents can't be used as evidence unless the right person is in the courtroom to explain the document and answer questions about it. There are many rules about evidence. (See MT Rules of Evidence.) You may want to talk to a lawyer about what evidence you need and how to make sure your evidence can be considered by the judge or jury.
6. Dress nicely.
Dress like you're going to an important job interview. Wear conservative clothing. Shorts, T-shirts, plunging necklines, and torn clothing are not appropriate. Lawyers are required to wear suits. You do not have to buy new clothing for court, but remember it is a formal place and you want to be conservative and respectful in dress and behavior.
7. Do not bring children.
Unless the court has told you to bring your children to the hearing, make arrangements for someone to take care of your children.
8. Proper conduct in the courtroom.
Certain behaviors are not allowed because they are noisy, distracting or disrespectful. You cannot: chew gum, eat, read a newspaper, sleep, wear a hat, listen to earphones, carry a cell phone or pager unless it's turned off, have a camera or camera phone, or carry a weapon.
During the hearing you should listen carefully, ask permission of the Judge to speak, talk directly to the judge and not the other side, avoid arguing with or interrupting another person, and control your emotions. When you talk to the Judge, start by saying "Your Honor". Speak loudly and clearly and remember that only one person can speak at a time. A court reporter is taking down everything said in the courtroom, and can only record one speaker at a time.
Be respectful to everyone. That includes the other party, Judge, Court staff, and other people in the court.
9. Before you leave court make sure you understand what happens next.
Ask questions. If you do not understand something, you have the right to ask for more information so that you understand. Just remember to be respectful, as hearings can be stressful.
Do you need to come back for another court hearing? Do you need to prepare a written legal argument or proposed court order? Do you need to take other steps or actions? Will the Judge make an order as a result of the hearing? Sometimes orders are written up right away - as you wait. Or, the judge may think about the case and write an order later and send it in the mail. Politely ask questions if you do not understand what will happen next.
Still need more help? The LawHelper! is a tool to use to find the information you need to represent yourself or handle a problem with your rental. Click here to go to the LawHelper!