WINNING IN COURT
For those people representing themselves in a legal situation, great care must be taken to ensure the judge and others involved see that you are a knowledgeable person, capable of handling your own affairs. This article is not meant to give legal advice to anyone. Only a qualified professional should be consulted if you have specific legal questions. Instead, this article is being posted from one person’s experience and these are the things that have worked for that person.
Knowledge is Power. You have heard it before. Knowledge of the entire case is essential if you are going to impress the judge, opposing attorneys and jurors, if applicable. Make yourself aware of every aspect of the case: Who has brought the case forward and what kind of person are they? What are their reasons for the lawsuit? What grounds do they have? What proof? Also, check out the opposing attorneys, if possible. Find out what area of law they specialize in, and find out what you can about their case history, especially their wins to see what special steps they may have taken. This will help ready you for nearly anything they may pull out of the closet about you.
For your own defense, gather everything you have that will prove that you are correct and they are not. Everything from receipts (with your credit card number or name, and date) to date books, notarized statements from witnesses who will back you (if they cannot appear in person), e-mail records, regular mail (with attached post-marked envelope to prove dates), etc. Often times statements of income (bank statements or pay stubs) will also be necessary. Also gather all solid information that you may be able to use against the other party.
As an example of how this worked out well: In one case, a divorced woman was being sued by her ex husband for custody of their child. The ex husband made his case claiming that the woman was practicing witchcraft and was therefore a bad influence on the child. The woman however found a public website that her ex husband had been running which made several positive references to the Church of Satan, as well as made public his own thoughts of murder and suicide, while bad-mouthing her and her daughter on the same page! She quickly printed out every page of this website, which included his photo and full name, and brought it with her to their hearing. Needless to say, the ex husband was forced to take the website down and the case was dropped immediately. Even online blogs can be used in testimony and as evidence against a person if it is clear who the author is and who they are talking about on their website. With this in mind however, make sure that any and all websites you may have are completely free of incriminating information about you as your own websites and blogs may be used against you as well.
Using your court’s library or website, look up cases similar to your own. What evidence was presented, and what loopholes can you find? Seek out cases where the party in your position has won the case and make note of the case name (ie: Smith vs. Jones) and the case number and date. If at any time your own case is not turning in your favor, bring up these cases to the judge as a reminder that you are not the only one in this situation, and someone before you in the same situation was granted leniency due to “X”.
Also, know your rights. Laws vary by state, county and city. Study the laws in your particular area which pertain to your case so that you will know exactly what can and cannot be done. From time to time, it may be necessary to remind the court of these little tidbits of information. Remember, just because they are attorneys does not mean they can quote every law correctly inside and out. Attorneys as well as judges make mistakes and it is up to you to protect yourself against those errors.
Be absolutely thorough. In most cases, if you are required to file any paperwork regarding your case with the courts, failure to do so may be punishable with anything from fines up to imprisonment. Protect yourself! Your county’s Clerk of Courts office will be able to refer you to a Legal Self Help department within the court. In just one phone call, the Self Help office can pull up your case file (provided you already have a case number) and they will advise you on each and every form you need to fill out, in which order, and when they need to be filed. From there, you can either pick up the forms at the courthouse itself, or in most areas, download them yourself from the county or state court’s website. While the Self Help office can not give you any legal advice, they can assist you in filling out the forms. Sometimes it is hard to decipher what needs to go where, so do not be embarrassed by asking. One error can cost you a lot of time, money, and even the case. This is why they are there to help. Also, when you file the papers with the court, always mail them with a Return Receipt (available through your Post Office). This will provide a signed and dated form showing that the forms were received, and by whom and when. Be sure to check if you are required to file a copy with the opposing attorney as well. This is most often the case in family law cases (divorce, custody, child support, etc.) Always make copies of all the documents you fill out and sign, after they have been notarized, and keep them in order. This brings us to organization.
Organization cannot be understated. When entering a courtroom in your own defense, it is impossible to be “too” prepared. Keep a binder of all information related to the case and organize it by subject, then by date. For example, copies of any papers or forms you have had to file for the case should always be kept in a front section, in order by the date they were filled and filed. In the next section, you could place your evidence against the other party, then evidence in your own defense, and finally your reference to other similar cases. In any event, any piece of information should be readily available should the judge need it, or should you wish to bring it up when given the chance to do so. I have sat in on many court cases where the judge asked for something and the attorney fumbled through their briefcase, coming up empty handed. Rather than giving the attorney time to find the necessary documents, the judge ruled out that section of the case and carried on, leaving the attorney flustered and their client angered at the lack of competence. By keeping yourself impeccably organized, you will be able to avoid falling into this trap.
Lastly, the impression you make on the judge does count. You should arrive at least thirty minutes prior to the time your case is scheduled to start. To save time when entering the courthouse, bring with you only what is necessary. You will more than likely have to pass through a metal detector upon entering the building. All your personal belongings will be placed in a bucket or on a conveyor belt and X-rayed for possible weapons, drugs, etc. Write down any important contact information you think you will need in you’re your binder and leave the cell phone and PDA in the car. X-ray machines and metal detectors contain magnets and strong electrical fields that can damage or destroy electronic devices. The clothing you wear to court should present a confident and professional person. A suit and tie, or a business-professional skirt suit will make the best impression. Your appearance should be neatly groomed, that means no spiky or wild hair or extensive make-up. Visible body jewelry should be removed and visible tattoos should be covered. As well, your attitude should be professional when addressing anyone in the courtroom. Although it may be difficult, remain as calm and collected as you can. Be personable and pleasant to everyone involved, even the other party, no matter how difficult that may be. This act of maturity will go a long way. Emotional outbursts in the courtroom are not acceptable, no matter how emotional the case. You will make a better impression if you save crying and punching pillows until you get home. Remember also that the judge has many cases to get through in the course of the day, and your case is no exception. When it is your turn to speak, stick only to the facts that pertain directly to the case and do not go off on tangents. This will waste the court’s time and the judge will likely move on without giving you a chance to say what you really needed to say.
I hope this article helps those who may need it and remember, if you have any specific legal questions, the only person qualified to provide that legal advice to you is a licensed attorney.