Saturday, March 22, 2014

Pro se Pointers - Going to Court Without an Attorney

Everyone has rights to access the court system. Most people use a lawyer to help them get access because the system is a complex process that lawyers spend a lifetime learning. If however, you absolutely cannot afford a lawyer, here are some general ideas for all litigants no matter where you live. In a separate article, I will point out some procedures for Will County family law cases.
For all pro se litigants:
  1. Wear appropriate clothing. Respect for the judge is not optional and the first sign of respect is what you wear. A suit and tie is not required (never a bad idea) but a general rule would be if your grandmother wouldn’t let you wear it to church, it is probably not appropriate.
  2. Use the term “your honor” or at least “sir” or “ma’am”.  Judges are the most powerful persons in our society with the power to put just about anybody in jail. Plenty of rude and disrespectful people have found themselves in jail for contempt of court.
  3. Have all your papers ready. It is not the judge's job to figure out your case, it is your job to present it. Have a copy of all your motions, proof of notices and supporting documents such as paystubs, tax returns, bills/invoices, etc. If you want the judge to rely on a previous judgment or court order, have a copy of that as well.
  4. Get to court early and check in with the clerk if allowed. You may have to wait a long time to get your case heard but that doesn’t mean you can be late for court and most judges do not let you check with the clerk if you come in late.
  5. Be nice to the clerk and bailiff. They are not there to serve you - they are there for the judge who is generally very protective of the clerks.
  6. Have the case properly set. Judges generally will only deal with issues related to a properly filed motion because the other side has a right to know what issues are being dealt with and it is not the judge’s job to do that. If you want something done, you have to get it ready for the judge to decide.  
  7. Once the judge calls the case, follow these rules:
    1. Be ready to tell the judge what motion is being dealt with that day
    2. If the other side is not there, be ready to show proof they were served with notice
    3. Wait your turn. A court hearing is NOT a conversation where you can interrupt either the judge or the other side. If the other side monopolizes the hearing, ask the judge if you can respond. Judges control the flow of information, not the litigants or lawyers
    4. When the judge starts deciding things, take notes because someone has to write the court order for the decision and you cannot always expect the judge to do it (but some will).
    5. Finally, once the judge makes a decision and you are done THANK THE JUDGE. Even if the decision is not in your favor, you could always find yourself back before the judge later.