What to Expect When You Go to Court

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Going to court can be intimidating. This article will help you understand what happens when you go to court.

It's a good idea to talk to a lawyer if you can. A lawyer can help you understand your options and how to prepare for court. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find a lawyer or legal services in your area. If you need to handle your legal matter yourself, you can get information about legal issues here on the Michigan Legal Help website. If you're going to represent yourself in court, you need to know several things. 

Going to Court

When you go to court you'll probably have to go through security screening. You may need to go through a metal detector, and anything you bring with you may be scanned or searched. This can take extra time, so get to court early. Call ahead or look at the court’s website to learn about its security rules.

All Michigan courts must allow you to bring portable electronic devices, like cell phones, into the building. The courts are allowed to limit your cell phone use in some ways. For example, you may not take photos, videos, audio, or any kind of recording inside a courtroom. Your phone has to be off or on silent in the courtroom. You are allowed to use your phone or other device to take photos of court records. If you break the rules about cell phones and other devices in court, the judge can take the device, or even hold you in contempt.

If you’re going to file papers, you will need to go to the court clerk’s office in the public area of the courthouse. This is where the court’s files are kept. You may need to pay a filing fee when you file your forms. If you can’t afford the fee, you can ask the court to waive it. The court clerk cannot give you legal advice or tell you how to fill out a form. You can find many of the forms you may need to file, and instructions for handling your case, here on the Michigan Legal Help website.

What to Expect at a Hearing 

When you go to court you might have a hearing or trial before a judge or magistrate. Always be prepared to have your hearing on the hearing date. However, you may have to come back another day, depending on the judge’s and the court’s schedule.

Dress nicely when you go to court, as if you’re going to a job interview. Don’t wear shorts or tank tops. Make sure you’ve turned off your cell phone and that you’re not chewing gum before you go into the courtroom. Check the list of cases posted outside the courtroom to make sure you’re in the right place.

When you go into the courtroom, check in with the judge’s clerk, who may be in the courtroom or in an office nearby. Tell the judge’s clerk your name and that you’re representing yourself. It’s important to arrive on time, but if you are running late, call the court to let them know. If you are not in the courtroom when your case is called, your case might be heard without you.

There are many people who work in the courtroom. The judge or magistrate hears and decides cases. The judge’s clerk manages the case files and calls the cases. The court reporter records the proceedings, and the deputy keeps order in the courtroom. None of these people are allowed to give you legal advice.

If there are other hearings happening while you wait, use this time to see what other people are doing: where they’re standing, how they’re talking to the judge, and/or how they’re taking turns to speak. What happens in a real courtroom isn’t like what you see on TV.

When your case is called, stand up and tell the judge you are present and representing yourself. You will be directed to stand at a podium or table. You might be sworn in by the clerk. This means you promise to tell the truth in everything you say in court. Address your comments to the judge, not to the other party or attorney. Be respectful to everyone in the courtroom. Address the judge as “your honor.”

The judge is in charge during a hearing or trial. The judge could ask a lot of questions, or could expect you to do a lot of the talking. The Plaintiff or Petitioner, who started the case, generally goes first. Then the Defendant or Respondent, who is the other party in the case, gets to speak. In an evidentiary hearing or trial, you can bring witnesses and documents to prove your case. If you have a document to show the judge, bring an extra copy for the other side and keep a copy for yourself. In a motion hearing, generally you do not have the chance to bring witnesses. Check your hearing notice to see which kind of hearing you will have.

At the end, the judge will make a decision. The judge’s decision must be put in writing, and it might be called a judgment or an order. You or the other party may have to prepare the final order or judgment. When it is ready, the judge will sign it, and a clerk will stamp it and give you a copy. Don’t leave the courthouse without a copy of your order or judgment.

Things to Remember

Representing yourself in court can be intimidating, but many people do it successfully. If you’re really nervous, go to court before your hearing to watch other cases. Do your research beforehand. It’s always best to have a lawyer. But if you are representing yourself, learn as much as you can at the Michigan Legal Help website and a local self-help center, if your community has one. 

Always come to court prepared. Arrive early, dress nicely, make a list of what you want to tell the judge, and keep your paperwork organized. If you do, you will know you’ve done the best possible job of representing yourself. Good luck!