Everyone's nervous the first time few times they represent themselves in court.
Preparation goes an awful long way to a better court appearance.
It takes a lot of work to have a good day in court.
Here a few tips to tell you what to expect, and what to do prepare yourself for your day in court.
Before you get to Court: Paperwork
- Evidence: Witness statements and Affidavits should address only evidence (in full detail) and not the law. Unless you’re informed otherwise, it will be by witness statement.
- Your Skeleton Argument should set out a summary of what you intend to say to the court at the hearing. Not every last detail.
These are your “submissions”. Submissions are what you say to the court. A court will not receive evidence about the case other than in witness statements, unless it is trivial or one of the narrow exceptions apply, such as judicial notice.
- Skeleton Arguments:
- are used to prepare the judge for the court, and the other side.
- should address the evidence (in summary) and law (in detail).
- ensure that all the points in your favour or against your opposition are defined and advanced in it.
- Unless the Judge says that he/she has read and taken on board the contents of the Skeleton Argument, repeat in Court at submission time all the points in your favour (so that they are on the Court record).
- Avoid walls of text. It’s hard to read quickly. Don't make judges' jobs harder than what it needs to be. Let the barristers do it. Don't copy the practice.
Presentation of Paperwork
- The work that goes into this happens well before you appear in court.
- Your paperwork and content should be:
- neat, tidy, in accordance with the rules applied by the particular Court,
- easy to read and follow
- properly indexed, paginated and logically grouped
- Take the time to get and be organised. You should know where all of the important papers are in your folders of papers. You can use different coloured post-it notes to “tag” documents.
- When serving (on the other side) and filing (with the Court) documents – don’t be late. It sends all the wrong messages. It will also cause you problems if you’re repeatedly late.
Preparation for Court: The Day Before
- By the morning of the day before you are due to appear in court you should:
- know all the relevant facts of your case - do your best with the relevant law.
- know where to find all the law and facts in your papers.
- be ready to answer detailed questions on your case from the judge. Assume that they know nothing about your case.
- When asked to explain something, try and give a broad summary first. If the judge wants more detail. They will ask. What you’re trying to do here is avoid overloading the court with information they don’t need.
- Take an A4 notebook. Put a line down the middle of the page. Write down what your responses to your opponent says on the righthand side of the page. On the left – their questions. You won’t have time to make notes when you’re addressing the court.
- Don’t try to ambush the other side with anything. This would have been taken care of in your evidence and/or skeleton argument. You will harm your prospects by trying it.
- This is one of the fundamental rules of the justice system: you give the other side advance notice of what you are going to say in court. Exceptions are rare. It’s known as “natural justice”: each party gets their opportunity to prepare for the case and make submissions in response.
- The dress code clothes that you would wear for a memorial service or an important job interview – sombre but not necessarily all black. Avoid loud at all costs. This is the last place you want to make a fashion statement.
- Men should not appear in Court other than in a jacket, shirt (yes, white or blue) and tame tie.
Arriving at Court
- If you can’t be on time, be early.
- Find the court usher and identify yourself.
- They will tell the judge that you’ve arrived. Courts may wait a short period of time for the other side if they are late. Remain patient. You’ll be called (the case name is announced) when the judge is ready to hear your case.
- Wait outside the court room until your case is called.
- Be polite to everyone. Never servile, submissive or smarmy.
- You will get nowhere by ‘sucking up’ to the Judge.
- This is not a football match. No shouting or raised voices.
- There is no need to become friendly with the lawyers for any other party.
- Keep a distance from the lawyers against you to avoid unwanted or unhelpful comments being repeated in Court.
- Be business-like at all times.
Addressing the Judge: What do you call them?
- Judges in different courts may all be called Sir or Madam.
- To address them by their traditional titles:
- High Court Judges, including the Intellectual Property Court: “My Lord” / “My Lady” (many pronounce these “Ma Lord” / “Mer Lady”)
- High Court Masters: “Master”, both genders
- County Court Judges: “Your Honour”
- Magistrate Court Judges: “Your Worship”
When you’re in Court: Submissions
- Wait for your turn to speak – the judge will invite you to speak.
- They usually explain what aspects of your case he/she wants addressed in detail. If it’s not the trial you’re attending, you should know what they are going to ask you from:
- notice of listing, or
- the application notice,
you received to tell you about the hearing.
- Don’t interrupt other speakers, whether the judge, witnesses, lawyers or litigants. Everyone gets their turn.
- Assume that you must stand to address the Judge unless told otherwise by the Judge or a court usher.
- Practice what you intend to say. Try not to read blocks of text.
- Try and keep an eye on the judge. They need to take notes too. Don’t go to fast.
- Tell the Judge in clear uncomplicated terms (1) why you should succeed, and (2) why your opponent should fail.
Court AppearancesDifferent judges work in different ways.
It's a big deal to appear in court and represent yourself in court, without all the training and background in law.
The tips above will set you on a road to do what the court expects, so that the court can focus on your case. You're more likely to avoid mess ups which may hurt and distract from the merit of your case.
Judges in the County Court
To get a sense of what judges are going through themselves, check out what this District Judge says.
After looking over it, imagine turning up to court against another litigant in person, or even a barrister that has not filed a skeleton argument.
Can you picture your reception by the judge?
- All aspects of presentation are important.
- You must show that you respect the Court. That doesn't mean grovelling.
- You are there to assist the Court in its decision making and progress your case.