Representing yourself in court is your chance to present your case and make sure your voice is heard, but it can be intimidating. There are some common things to consider as you prepare for court.
Legal terminology can be complicated and confusing unless you are a party in the justice system yourself. Ohio Legal Help seeks to make the justice system more accessible so that people feel empowered to resolve their legal problems. Our blog series, Legally Informed, will help you understand important things to know in the courtroom and cases.
In this blog, we’ll cover what you should know if you are going to court or representing yourself in court. For example, if you find yourself with a small claims court issue, you may need to present evidence and be able to speak up in court. If you haven’t read our blogs about common legal terms, read through those first to better understand some of the other terms in this blog.
Representing yourself in court is your chance to present your case and make sure your voice is heard, but it can be intimidating. It can also be challenging because different courts in Ohio follow different rules and processes, and what you can expect in a small claims court can be different than domestic relations court. There are some common things to consider as you prepare for court. As we go through all of the things to know as you prepare for court, we’ll use the example of taking your landlord to small claims court to get your security deposit back after 30 days.
First, if you sue someone or need someone to testify on your behalf, you have to let them know in writing, which is called “service.” That way, they'll be able to respond or show up to court when they need to. This is done by having them "served" with court documents, which can be done by mail, sheriff or bailiff, or by publication.
Example: You have left your rental home in good condition, paid your rent in full and given enough notice to your landlord. 30 days have gone by, and they haven’t returned the deposit or given you a list of reasons why they are keeping it. You’ve tried talking to them and writing a letter, and you still haven’t gotten a response. You decide file a case against them in small claims court and decide to have the court documents served to them via certified mail.
As you prepare for a hearing, you should make sure to collect your evidence, contact your witnesses, and make a written outline of your case. We have more information about navigating small claims court on our website.
As you consider how you will present your case, keep in mind that evidence to support your story can include:
- your testimony,
- the testimony of witnesses,
- written items like documents or receipts,
- items relevant to the case - for example, a piece of faulty merchandise on which your claim or defense is based,
- photos, videos or diagrams, perhaps of the damage to some item or of the scene of the incident.
Anything that can support your case may be useful as evidence but check with your court about any local rules concerning evidence. There is no easy answer to determine how much evidence is enough but imagine that you are the judge and that you do not know the facts of the case. What would you need to know to come to a reasonable conclusion? More important than the quantity of evidence is the quality of your evidence.
EX: When you start compiling evidence to support your claim that you left your rental home in good condition, you decide to use photos you took of the home on the day that you moved out. The photos show the home was left in clean and good condition and can help support your claim that your security deposit should be returned . You also decide to include all of your rental payment receipts showing that you paid your rent in full and do not owe the landlord anything.
Witnesses can include friends, neighbors, or bystanders who are familiar with some part of the incident or transaction. They must have witnessed the incident or transaction firsthand and cannot just have heard about it from you. You should talk with your witnesses ahead of time to ask what they know and if they will come and testify for you. You should always tell them to speak truthfully, because they can also be questioned by the other side.
When you have gathered your evidence, including your own testimony and the testimony of witnesses, write an outline of the points you wish to make to support your claim or defense. List your evidence and witnesses in the order you want to present them. A good way to present your case is by following a timeline of events, just like you would tell a story.
EX: Your friend who helped you move out that day is trustworthy and reliable and agrees to serve as a witness to the fact that you left the rental home in good condition and turned over your keys to the landlord.
Before you get to your court date, make sure you plan ahead by taking the day off of work and arranging for childcare if necessary. It’s also a good idea to figure out how you’re going to get to the court and what you’re going to wear – which should be something similar to what you’d wear to a job interview. If you have any questions about getting to court or what forms to bring, you can call the clerk of the court. Keep in mind they won’t be able to answer any questions about legal advice.
Sometimes for small claims cases, the court may suggest mediation in order to find a solution outside of the courtroom. You’ll still need to prepare for mediation with your receipts, photographs and other documentation. You can learn more about mediation on our website.
If you do have a hearing date, make sure to arrive to the court with plenty of time to spare. You’ll have to go through security typically, locate the courtroom, and check in with the bailiff. While you’re there, it’s important to show respect. In a courtroom, that means listening carefully to all court staff. It also means standing when the judge enters and leaves. When you speak to the judge, you should always call them “Your Honor,” or, if your case is being heard by a magistrate, call them “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Don’t be on your cell phone and don’t interrupt.
Courtroom do’s and don’ts
When it is your turn to speak, tell the truth. If you don’t and the court finds out, you will end up in a lot of trouble. You can learn about all of the courtroom do’s and don’ts in depth here. Knowing when and how to speak in court is so important because can make the difference between winning your case and losing it. 5 tips to keep in mind:
- Stay on point: Make sure you focus on just the facts and keep the story short. It can be helpful to practice what you want to say ahead of time with a family member or friend.
- Be polite and calm: Show respect to the judge and court staff and do not let your emotions get in the way of making your case.
- Wait your turn: Wait until the judge asks you to tell your side of the story, and always ask if you are allowed to ask a question of a witness.
- Be honest: If the judge or anyone else says something that you don’t understand, be honest and ask them to explain it to you. The same goes for a question you don’t know the answer to. Just tell the judge that you don’t know or remember.
- Take a deep breath: We are all nervous sometimes, but just remember to breathe and use this as an opportunity to share your story. You can learn more about preparing for a hearing on our website.
EX: Your landlord tries to paint a different picture of how you left the home, but you stay on point with the evidence and witness testimony you have compiled. You don’t let your nerves or emotions impact you while you give your testimony.
After both sides have told their side of the story and presented their evidence, the judge will either make a decision right away or take it “under advisement.” That means the judge will think about what their decision will be, outside of the courtroom, and let you know later. When the decision is made, the judge will issue an order. You must follow the order and a judge's order is binding. That means you will have to do what the order says, even if you don’t agree with it.
With these tips in mind, you can feel prepared for representing yourself in court and make sure your voice is heard.