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Courtroom Proceedings

Most people's ideas about what goes on in a courtroom come from movies, television, books, or maybe serving on a jury themselves. The image of a courtroom presented in film, television, and books may or may not accurately represent courtroom proceedings. Still, if you're headed to court, you'll want to understand better what happens in a courtroom and how you should conduct yourself.

FindLaw's Courtroom Proceedings section provides helpful articles on surviving your day in court and what to do (and avoid) as a witness. It also gives information on subpoenas, judge versus jury trials, and other related information.

What Does 'Litigation' Mean?

Litigation is a term used in the formal legal process wherein the court system resolves legal disputes. In litigation, people seek the court's help on various types of cases, ranging from civil cases to criminal cases and other legal matters.

The Four Stages of the Litigation Process

Litigation proceedings often come in four phases. Below are the typical stages of litigation in a courtroom proceeding.

Filing of Pleadings

The first stage of the litigation process involves filing pleadings in the district court. The pleadings often contain formal statements by the parties. Each party will file complaints, answers, replies, or counterclaims. The plaintiff usually starts the legal action by filing a complaint, stating the legal issues involved and the grounds of the cause of action. The defendant will then respond with an answer, which could include defenses and counterclaims against the plaintiff.


The discovery process allows both parties to exchange information related to the case. The parties share all the evidence they will present at the court. This helps the parties prepare for trial, prepare their legal arguments, and ask the witnesses and parties in the lawsuit questions. This step prepares both parties for trial by clarifying the issues and facts involved.


If the parties fail to settle, the case proceeds to trial. Both parties argue before the judge or the jury during the trial and present evidence. The trial begins with each party providing an opening statement. They may then call their witnesses to testify before the court and present evidence to support their claims. During the trial, the parties may also conduct cross-examination of witnesses to challenge the witnesses' testimony. After the parties present their evidence and cross-examination, each side will make a closing argument. The closing argument will sum up the evidence and legal claims presented. It serves as a final plea to the judge and jury on how to resolve the case.

Verdict and Appeals

After the court hearing, the judge announces the case's outcome. The court order reflects whether the defendant is liable and what damages or relief the plaintiff is entitled to, if any. Either party can appeal the court order to an appellate court if they believe that legal errors materially affect the case's outcome.

What Is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court occurs when a person disrespects a court, impedes its ability to perform its function, or defies a court's authority. There are two types of contempt: criminal contempt and civil contempt. Civil contempt often occurs when a person disobeys a court order, injuring a private party's rights. For example, the court may hold a person in civil contempt if they fail to pay court-ordered child support.

The most significant difference between civil and criminal contempt is each's purpose. Criminal contempt seeks to punish the actual act of contempt. Meanwhile, civil contempt aims to restore the rights of the party who suffered because the person in contempt failed to abide by the court's order. So, once the court resolves the underlying case or the person in civil contempt complies with the court order, civil contempt sanctions usually end.

What Is a Subpoena?

A subpoena is a legal instrument that requests a person to appear in court or another legal proceeding. A subpoena can also be a request to produce certain documents. It's a formal legal document, so a person who doesn't follow a subpoena can be subject to civil or criminal penalties. This can include fines or jail time. Some types of information or documents requested in a subpoena are the following:

  • Financial documents: These may include tax returns, bank statements, and other financial records relevant to the legal issue or claim.
  • Personal records: These may include personal communications such as emails, texts, letters, and other relevant documents. They could also include medical history, employment history, and educational records.
  • Physical evidence: This includes tangible items, such as biological samples like blood and DNA. These are crucial for forensic analysis or determining familial relationships, particularly in family law and some civil cases.

Being a Witness

Unless you're used to serving as a witness, being a part of courtroom proceedings can be a nerve-racking experience. Having some information about how to act as a witness can help you prepare and feel less nervous. First, it's important that you take a subpoena seriously. As mentioned above, failure to abide by a subpoena can have serious consequences. Being honest with your testimony and providing only necessary information is also essential. Even if you aren't the defendant or plaintiff in a case, you must appear presentable when serving as a witness in a trial. Finally, if you have an attorney, be sure to follow their instructions and advice on how to behave as a witness.

Hiring an Attorney

If you find yourself navigating the legal challenges of a civil lawsuit or are involved in any civil action, consulting a litigation and appeals attorney can be helpful. They can provide invaluable legal assistance to help you prepare for your case. This is the case whether you are preparing for a legal proceeding in the trial court, seeking a new trial, or need help understanding the court and local rules. They can guide you through your responsibilities as a respondent or a court witness and ensure your legal rights.

You do not have to face the courtroom alone. Contact a litigation and appeals attorney today to secure your legal support.

Learn About Courtroom Proceedings

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