It is always a good idea to consult with an attorney and be represented by an attorney in court. The law is complex. Attorneys are trained professionals who understand the law and how it relates to your case. Even matters that initially look simple may raise complicated issues.
Attorneys can be expensive, but consider this:
- What might you lose if your case goes badly? Paying for an attorney may be a good investment.
- Meet with several attorneys to discuss your case and their fees - don’t let one consultation make up your mind.
Ohio courts and judges will provide a fair hearing for your case whether or not you are represented by an attorney, and it is your right to represent yourself if you so choose. When you bring a case to court without the help of an attorney, you are taking on a complex task that is normally done by highly trained professionals. You may do yourself a disservice.
When you decide to represent yourself, you take on full responsibility for your case. You need to handle legal questions as well as deadlines, documents, evidence, witnesses, and any other issues that may come up. Even a seemingly simple case can demand a lot of your time and attention.
- Familiarize yourself with the local court rules. Rules and procedures vary slightly from court to court, and you need to know the rules that apply in the court that will hear your case. Obtain a copy of the local rules from your court.
- Make sure your filings and documents conform to local standards. Generic forms and sample filings are available in books and on the internet. However, these generic documents may not conform to the standards of the court that will hear your case. To make sure that your documents will be accepted, ask your court for forms.
- Respond to all inquiries on time. During trial preparations, you may receive inquiries from the court or the opposing party. For example, the opposing party may be entitled to “discovery” - to learn about evidence or testimony you plan to introduce (you may be entitled to do the same). If you fail to respond to such inquiries, you may limit your ability to present your case.
- Rules about admissible evidence are complicated. There are many possible reasons that evidence or testimony you think is relevant and important may not be admissible in court. Since questions about what evidence is admissible are legal questions that are often contested, neither court staff nor the judge may answer them ahead of time. This can be frustrating for non-attorneys: if your case will involve contested evidence, consider again whether you need an attorney.
- Make sure evidence you plan to use will be acceptable and available in court. If your case will involve evidence - documents, pictures, texts, costs estimates, receipts, or other items - you must prepare it for court use. In particular, you must
- bring at least three copies of all documents (for the court, for the opposing party, and for yourself)
- be able to verify that the documents are what you say they are or contain accurate information.
- Make sure any witnesses are prepared and available in court. If your case will involve testimony from witnesses, you need to work with them before you and they appear in court. Make sure your witnesses know what you will ask, and instruct them to answer truthfully. And remember that your witnesses must be
- present at your trial (they may not, for example, prepare written statements or appear by telephone);
- prepared to answer questions from the opposing party or his or her attorney.
In the Courtroom
At the trial or hearing itself, you need to present your case in its strongest way. Here are some simple tips:
- Make a good impression. Dress appropriately. Arrive early with all your materials.
- Respect the court. Stand when the judge enters or leaves the courtroom and when you speak to the judge. Address the judge as “Your Honor.”
- Respect the opposing party. Never argue with the opposing party in front of the judge. Use respectful terms of address.
- Speak clearly and succinctly. Be prepared to state your case in a few sentences. Listen carefully and answer questions directly
- Be prepared. Courts are very busy. You want to present your case in the strongest way, but you also want to help the proceedings move efficiently. The better prepared you are, the better the case will go.
Talking with the Judge
Two of the most important principles of the American judicial system are fairness and equal treatment for all persons. To ensure fairness and equal treatment, judges are not allowed by their rules of ethics to receive what are called ex parte communications. In other words, judges cannot hear or receive information/evidence from one side in a case without the other side being present or notified. This is because the other side must have an opportunity to dispute or explain the evidence. That is why judges hear case testimony in the courtroom where everyone is present.
If you want to tell the judge about your case or if you want to ask the judge to take certain action in your case, you should not call or write the judge directly. Instead, you should mail, fax, or file in-person a written motion that explains what you want the court to do and why you feel that that outcome is appropriate in a clear, concise manner. All motions must be titled, properly captioned with the name of all parties, include all relevant case numbers, be signed, dated, and include a certificate of service that shows how, when, and to who you’re serving a copy of the motion to.
After your motion has been filed in the clerk’s office, the judge or magistrate on the case will consider it, along with any responses from the other parties. The court may schedule a hearing on the request or may rule on it based solely on the written information that you and other parties have filed.
Disclaimer: It is not the intention of the Madison County Probate/Juvenile Court to offer legal advice through these pages or through our answering of questions. While knowledgeable about the operational procedures of the Court, Deputy Clerks and Probation Staff are not attorneys and cannot recommend specific legal options and by their answering questions should not be construed as such. When in doubt about your legal status, you should seek the advice of an attorney knowledgeable in the area of law that you are inquiring about.