A lot of what we do here at Northwest Advocacy Foundation is something that we call “unbundled” legal services. We’re going to talk more about this next week, but essentially, it means that we are helping folks out in the background, while they are actually the ones representing themselves, and appearing in court. Understandably, representing yourself in court can be incredibly stressful, especially since it’s not something that most non-lawyers do very often. Having a plan, and knowing what to expect (as much as is possible), can help alleviate a lot of that stress. Below are a few tips, both for prior to your hearing and at the hearing itself.
Prior to Your Hearing
Think about what you want to tell the court, and prepare for that. You don’t have to write a speech, but have an idea of the points you want to make.
Review court rules, especially relating to which party speaks first, how long each side has to make their argument, etc.
If you’re not familiar with the area that the courthouse is located, do a test run before the day of your hearing. If you’re planning to drive to your hearing, on your test run, also drive (ideally also at the same time of day that your hearing will be). Scope out where to park, how far the walk to the courthouse will be, etc. If you’re planning to take public transportation to your hearing, on your test run, also take public transportation. Pay attention to how often transit on your route comes, where you will be dropped off in relation to the courthouse, etc.
If you have never been inside the courthouse, you may want to give yourself a little tour, so that you know exactly where you’re going. You can do this anytime that court is open, just be sure not to bring in any prohibited items. If you do this, feel free to watch a hearing so that you know what to expect. SPOILER: It’s nothing like we see on TV.
On the Day of Your Hearing
Arrive on time (which, when we’re talking about court, means at least 15 minutes early).
Dress nicely. You don’t have to wear a suit or clothing that you think a lawyer would wear, but also don’t dress like you’re going to the beach. Dress like you’re going to church or a funeral.
Unless the courthouse offers childcare (shoutout to Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent), and you have made arrangements for your child to utilize the court’s childcare, do not bring children with you to court.
Don’t bring an entourage. A support person or two is fine, but it’s generally not a good idea to bring your friends and entire extended family. Court calendars are typically extremely full, meaning that the individual courtrooms are also full. During the hearing, speak to the judge or commissioner, not the other party or their attorney.
Do not discuss issues that are not relevant to the current hearing. This is often the hardest for folks, as the law kind of “separates” issues that are incredibly related in your life. If you’re unsure of what you should and should not be presenting to the court, a lawyer can help you determine what to focus on.
Do not interrupt the court or the other party. You will have an opportunity to speak, and if you feel that you need to reply to something the other party said, wait until they finish, and then ask the court if you may reply.
Answer the judge’s / commissioner’s questions honestly. If you don’t understand the question, say so.
Be respectful – don’t roll your eyes, shake your head, or be otherwise distracting. If the court doesn’t rule in your favor, maintain your cool. (And then talk to a lawyer about what options you have.)