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What To Expect When Going to Court

If you don't settle your civil case, you'll eventually end up in court. Although the idea of going to court may intimidate you, learning about what to expect in the courtroom may help alleviate some of that stress.

The sections below provide information on courtroom proceedings, self-representation, and small claims court. At the end of this article, you can find links to helpful resources that provide more in-depth information.

What Happens in a Trial?

Before a jury trial begins, the parties and judge go through voir dire, a fancy name for jury selection. The parties may ask potential jurors questions to ensure the jurors can evaluate the facts and legal issues fairly. In a bench trial, where a judge decides the issues of law and fact, there is no need for voir dire because there is no jury.

At the start of the trial, each side has a chance to present an opening argument to the court. Then, the plaintiff (the person or entity that filed the lawsuit) presents their arguments and evidence. The plaintiff has the burden of proof. This means they must convince the judge or jury that they deserve a favorable judgment. The defendant will present their case after the plaintiff rests.

Either party may call witnesses to testify. If one party calls a witness, the other party will have a chance to cross-examine them. There are several different types of witnesses. Fact witnesses, for example, testify about the facts of the case. Expert witnesses use their specialized knowledge to opine on highly technical issues in the court case.

Before trial, parties can request a subpoena to witness. A subpoena is a court order compelling a witness to appear in court or produce specific documents.

During the trial, the judge decides whether to admit or exclude evidence. They must consider the rules of evidence when making their decisions. This is just one of a judge's roles in a trial, and it ensures the parties receive a fair trial.

After the parties rest their cases, they present closing arguments to the court. Then, in a jury trial, the judge gives the jurors instructions about how to apply the law. The judge deliberates and issues the court's decision in a bench trial. If a party wins their case, they may recover their filing fees.


A party that disagrees with a court's decision or a jury's verdict can usually appeal. If they appeal a state court's decision, they usually file a notice of appeal with the state's intermediate appellate court. Suppose they want to appeal from the appellate court. In that case, they can generally file an appeal with the state's highest court (often a state supreme court, but the state may have a different name).

A party who appeals from a U.S. District Court must appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A further appeal goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read FindLaw's article on appeals and appellate procedure for more information about appeals and oral arguments.

Alternatives to Court

Most civil lawsuits settle before they go to trial. There are several benefits to settling a case, including the following:

  • Resolving a case before parties spend the time and money needed to try the case
  • Allowing parties to agree to a mutually satisfactory resolution to their dispute because it is voluntary
  • Providing finality to a state or federal court case, which otherwise may take years to resolve or adjudicate

Parties may try to settle on their own or participate in alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Two of the most common forms of ADR are arbitration and mediation.

In criminal cases, the prosecutor and defendant may engage in plea negotiations. Most criminal cases result in plea bargains. Often, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge to avoid jail time or serve a shorter sentence.

Representing Yourself

Everyone has a right to represent themselves in court. Although representing yourself may present additional challenges, it's doable if you have the time to devote to your case.

But don't expect any favors from the court just because you decided not to hire an attorney. In a civil case, the court will expect you to follow all the applicable rules of civil procedure and evidence. For example, if you miss the deadline to file a response to a motion for summary judgment, the court won't bend the rules for you.

In other words, you're responsible for every aspect of the case, including navigating the court system and meeting deadlines. This includes responding to the plaintiff's answer, discovery requests, and interrogatories. You may also have to sit for a deposition and answer the opposing side's questions under oath. Of course, you must also prepare for and attend any scheduled proceedings. This includes following court rules and bringing all necessary case files to court.

The court clerk is a valuable contact for a self-represented party. They can provide general information about the court system and how to file forms. But they can't provide legal advice to anyone.

Even if you decide to represent yourself, it may help to meet with a civil litigation attorney early on in your case. Most attorneys provide free consultations, and they can discuss your case's strengths and weaknesses. After meeting with them, you'll likely have a better handle on your case and whether you can represent yourself.

Your state judiciary's website may also offer self-help resources or low-cost legal services for pro se litigants. You may also consider contacting your state's bar association for information on representing yourself.

Small Claims Court

Every state has a small claims court, which provides a quick, informal, and inexpensive way to resolve minor civil claims. Unlike a state trial court, small claims courts typically resolve a case within 30 to 90 days.

Small claims courts have limited jurisdiction. This means they can only hear certain types of cases. For example, they can usually only hear civil cases, like personal injury or contract claims. They usually can't hear family law or criminal cases, among others. They also have jurisdictional limits regarding the amount of money a party may recover. The amount of money that the court may award varies based on state law.

Most states have designed their small claims courts to allow litigants to represent themselves. The informal rules of procedure and evidence generally allow parties to litigate their claims without an attorney's assistance. In fact, some states don't allow parties to hire attorneys to represent them in a small claims case.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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