What is the order of events in the courtroom?
Each state and court may have variations on this, but this is generally the order of events:
- The judge, clerk, or bailiff will call your case. In some courts, a mediator might first talk with you, and then with the other party, to see if you might be able to reach an agreement without a trial.
- In a criminal case or in other types of formal or more complicated cases, the judge might ask the parties to give opening statements. This is your chance to talk about what evidence you will show at trial and how you want the judge or jury to rule, based on that evidence.
- In less formal proceedings, the bailiff or the clerk will swear you and the other party in by asking you both to state your names and to swear or affirm to tell the truth.
- The party that filed the first court papers, usually called the complaint or the petition, is considered the plaintiff or the petitioner. The plaintiff/petitioner will tell his/her side of the story first. This includes the party’s testimony, calling any witnesses s/he may have, and entering any evidence that s/he has. We have more detailed information about this process in the rest of this section.
- The other party or his/her lawyer may ask you and your witnesses questions as part of cross-examination, which you must answer truthfully. You may have the right to object to certain questions that the other party asks.
- If your witnesses testimony was damaged during cross examination, you may be able to ask clarifying questions during re-direct.
- The judge might also ask questions to you or to any other witnesses.
- Next, the other party, who will usually be known as the defendant or respondent, will be allowed to present his/her case. S/he can testify and tell his/her side of what happened, call witnesses, and enter his/her evidence. It may be very different from yours. The same principles apply as mentioned earlier, about the right to ask cross examination questions and make objections during the abuser’s testimony, if legally appropriate.
- The judge might then ask for closing statements, or not, depending on the court and the type of case. Closing statements are your chance to sum up the evidence and ask the judge again for a specific decision.
- The judge will make a decision after hearing both sides and considering the evidence. The judge may make the decision right away or may take a recess to give the decision. The recess may be only for a few hours or it may take days or weeks to give the final decision.
- If your case is for a restraining order. The judge may grant you and sign the final restraining order that day at your hearing. If so, then make sure you get a copy, review it, and ask the judge if you have any questions about it. If the judge is not giving his/her decision that day, make sure to ask the judge to extend your temporary restraining order if you have one.
What do I keep in mind when going to court?
- Be on time.
- Have your witnesses there and ready.
- Have your evidence ready, including extra copies of any documents/photos for the judge and the other party.
- If you have subpoenaed witnesses or documents and they are not in court, you should inform the judge.
- Dress appropriately (as if you had a job interview).
- Speak directly to the judge; s/he should understand if you feel nervous. Do not speak or argue with the abuser during the hearing. Although it may be upsetting to hear the abuser say things that are untrue, you should have the opportunity to tell your story directly to the judge.
- Always address the judge as “Your Honor.”
- Be prepared to spend all day in court. (There may be hearings before yours.) If you have children, try to find someone to take care of them while you are in court.
- If the abuser comes to court with a lawyer and you do not have a lawyer, ask the judge for a “continuance” so you can look for a lawyer.
- While you are waiting to be called, it is your right to move seats if the abuser sits next to you, and to receive help from court staff in keeping the abuser away from you. Tell the bailiff or any sheriff, police or security guard if you are afraid for your safety.
- Stand when the judge enters and sit when the judge or bailiff asks you to.
- Try to remain calm but it is OK if you show emotion.
- Take deep breaths if you feel yourself getting tense. Never lose your temper in the courtroom.
- Always tell the truth.
- If you don’t understand a question, just say so. Don’t answer a question that you don’t understand.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, just say so. Never make up an answer.
- Remember that you know your story better than anyone - you are the expert. Don’t let the abuser or the judge or a lawyer throw you off.
- Prepare for the possibility that you might lose the case and may need to file an appeal of the judge’s order. In order to know how to prepare for a possible appeal, go to What steps do I need to take during the trial to set myself up for possibly being able to appeal if I lose?
Why would I enter evidence in court?
The only way a judge can decide a court case is based on the evidence the parties present during the case. In many cases, the evidence that a judge has is mostly testimony from the parties and testimony from their witnesses. However, there are also other kinds of evidence that you may be able to show to the judge to help prove your case. Additional evidence can be especially important if the other party is going to lie or tell a different version of what happened than you are. When there is conflicting testimony, the judge has to decide who s/he believes is telling the truth. The judge wil often look to other evidence and witnesses to decide which party is telling the truth.
If you have a case that involves domestic violence, having evidence to present that corroborates your version of the events can be especially important. Many survivors of domestic violence face disbelieving judges who are quick to accept the abuser’s efforts to explain away the violent incidents or behavior. Some abusers even claim that the violence did not happen at all and that the survivor is making up allegations to try to get an advantage in court. Others will claim that the victim is actually the abusive partner and that any injuries to the victim were from self-defense. It is important to anticipate these tactics and have evidence ready that you can show the judge to prove your version of the events and to get the judge to rule in your favor.
What evidence can I show the judge?
You can give almost anything to the court as evidence as long as it is relevant to the case and it does not violate one of the rules of evidence. For example, you generally cannot give in a letter that someone wrote for your trial or tell the judge something that someone else said due to the rule against hearsay. The most common types of evidence are:
- Testimonial – The testimony presented by the parties and any witnesses that they call to help with their case.
- Expert – Testimony from a witness who has expertise in a technical area and will give an opinion that the judge could rely upon when deciding the outcome of the case.
- Physical/real evidence –Any physical, tangible, or touchable thing that relates to the case. For example, a torn shirt from a domestic violence incident, an item that may have been broken by the abuser, a weapon, etc.
- Documentary – Letters, emails, photographs, and other documents relevant to the case.
- Demonstrative – A chart or illustration that you create for the trial to explain something to the judge that might not be easily understood without some visual assistance. For example, when describing why you had to use physical force in self-defense, you might draw out the layout of the house and indicate where the parties were standing to show why you could not escape.
Does testimony count as evidence?
Testimony is a kind of evidence, and it is often the only evidence that a judge has when deciding a case. When you are under oath in court and you are testifying to the judge, what you say is considered to be truthful unless it is somehow challenged (“rebutted”) by the other party. If the other party can show the judge that you aren’t telling the truth, through testimony, evidence, or effective cross-examination, s/he can “rebut” your testimony. Then a judge has to make a decision on who s/he thinks is being more truthful (“credible”).