Guide: Going to court on your own?
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Look for legal help first.
It is a good idea to find a lawyer if you can. To find a free legal help program near you, use our Referral Navigator.
If you can't find a lawyer or work things out here are tips to help you.
What to Expect When You're Representing Yourself
You have the right to represent yourself. There is some information to help you, so seek that out.
Judges and court staff cannot give you legal advice. You must follow court rules like everybody else. Do not expect special treatment just because you do not have a lawyer.
Breaking the rules may keep you from winning even if you have a good case. The court could punish or fine you. If you lose you may be ordered to pay the other side's costs and fees.
Things To Do Before You Go To Court or File Court Papers
- If you are delivered or served with court papers, read these papers right away! Keep them! Mark down dates when you have to go to court or file papers in court. There can be more than one court date in a case. Read everything and mark down all dates!
- Write down names, addresses, phone numbers and details about people and events in your case.
- Copy and put in order important papers about your legal problem. Keep original papers and documents safe and bring them to court with your copies. You may need extra copies for the court or the other side of the case.
- Example: for a landlord problem, get your lease, rent receipts/money orders /cancelled checks, and other papers.
- Find out about the law and court rules. The rules for all Louisiana state courts are posted on www.lasc.org, the site of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Click on "Court Rules" at the top of the home page. For information about basic Louisiana legal issues, see louisianalawhelp.org.
- Your public library may have law books and computers. See if there is a library at your local courthouse or law school.
- If there is a pending court case, see the papers in the court's record. Ask a court clerk for help with this.
- Try to sit in on other court cases to get a feel for what going to court is like. See tips for how to dress and act.
- If you have children, check with the court before your court date to find out if the court will let you bring your children. You may need to find someone to take care of your children on your court date.
- Get court papers ready to file.
- Writing court papers is hard to do. There may be a form for your issue. Check the library, courthouse or louisianalawhelp.org.
- It costs money to file most court papers. Find out if you need to pay to file papers in court.
- If you do not have money to file papers, you can ask for a court order to let you file papers without paying in advance.
- To get this order, you need to file something called an "In Forma Pauperis" form, or "IFP" for short. Use this tool to fill out the IFP forms and print them to file.
See the FAQs below for more information on what to do and how to behave at court.
After Your Day in Court
- The judge must rule on the case based on the law and the facts, even if this looks unfair.
- If you win, congratulations! Get a "certified" copy of your Judgment and keep this safe for your records. Even if you win a money judgment it may be very hard to collect the money.
- If you lose you may be able to challenge a judge's ruling or try to get it undone. It can be hard to fight a court decision without a lawyer. Try to get a lawyer right away. There are strict time limits to challenge or appeal.
The content on this page has been adapted from publications attributable to the entities reflected below.Southeast Louisiana Legal Serviceswww.slls.org Free legal information for low-income people: louisianalawhelp.org Resources for Louisiana's public interest and pro bono advocates: www.probono.net/la
Original Publication Date: December 2010
Information not legal advice. This document has been prepared for general information purposes only. This is not legal advice. Legal advice depends on the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state to state, so that some information may be correct for your jurisdiction. Finally, the information contained is not guaranteed to be up-to-date. Therefore, this information cannot replace the advice of a competent legal representative licensed in your state.
FAQs About Going to Court on Your Own
What should I wear? +
Dress as if you care about your case and respect the court. Many attorneys suggest to wear church clothes or clothes you would wear to a job interview. No matter what you wear, consider these tips:
- Dress in a manner that is tidy and neat. Make sure your clothes are clean and in good condition.
- Dress modestly. Do not wear flashy or skimpy clothes.
- Try to avoid:
- flip flops, shorts, tank tops, curlers, or very casual items.
- any clothing or insignia that reflects illegal substances (marijuana) or alcohol.
- any clothing that includes explicit language or adult humor.
- Tell court staff if you do not own proper shoes or clothes and must wear what you own.
Personal Items: Use Caution
Many courts have security guards and scanners. Do not carry knives, guns or other weapons. Call ahead of time to see if you can carry in your cell phone. Some courts have lockers for personal items, but many do not.
How early should I get to court? +
Get to court as early as you can - at least 30 minutes to one hour early. Consider that you may have to deal with traffic or have difficulty parking. It is always better to be early for a court hearing than late.
If you have to file papers, you will need extra time to file papers before court starts that day. Courts are busy and there may be lines. If you are late, the judge could decide your case without you, throw out your case, or take other action against you.
How do I find the courtroom? +
Check with court staff. Your court papers should say which judge or division/section has your case. One judge sometimes fills in for another.
In the courtroom, check in with the judge's clerk, deputy, bailiff or helper. This lets the court know you are there and to see if you have the right room.
If you cannot walk, hear, see, read, or if you have another special need, let court staff know. If you do not read, write or speak English, let court workers know before your court date, if you have time. You may ask for a free interpreter, someone who speaks the same language as you do. If there is no time, let court workers know as soon as you get to court.
What do I bring with me? +
Bring court papers you need to file and the correct number of copies (one to be filed; one to keep for yourself; one for the other side; and an extra). Remember your other papers and copies you may need for the court, your records, or the other side. You may need your picture ID for security.
If you were served with court papers, bring these papers! Bring a pen/pencil and paper to take notes.
Bring original documents or photos that may prove or disprove issues in the case. For documents and photos that you will provide the court as evidence in your case, you should bring at least 3 copies, as well.
Bring videos or audio recordings that may prove or disprove issues in the case. You will have to bring any necessary equipment to play the video or audio for the court.
What about witnesses? +
Witnesses can testify about facts to help tell your story. You can have witnesses come voluntarily or you can have them subpoenaed to come to court. You will need to file a subpoena before the court date.
Witnesses should personally know the facts of the events that they will testify about. This means that a witness cannot tell the court what someone else told them or what someone else said. They should dress appropriately and act properly for court and arrive in plenty of time.
How long do I have to wait in court? +
Even if there is a schedule or list of cases, the judge may hear cases in a different order. Your wait may be short or it may be all day.
What do I do in the courtroom? +
- When allowed in the courtroom, take a seat. Turn off your cell phone or turn off all phone sounds!
- Everyone stands when the judge comes in. Sit when told to do so by the judge or staff. If no one says anything, sit when the judge sits down.
- Do not talk, chew gum, eat, drink, read the paper, listen to music, or do anything distracting. Children must be quiet too. Many courts do not allow children in court. Again, check with the court before your court date.
- Wait for your case to be called. Say "your honor" when talking to the judge. Do not talk when the judge is talking.
- Legal problems are upsetting. Try to sound calm when you talk. Do not curse or use sloppy language.
- Speak to the judge and not to the other side or that side's lawyer. Both sides should get a chance to talk.
- Do not talk when the person on the other side or a lawyer is talking.
- Take any notes you need. This helps you respond to the other side's story.
- Sometimes the judge rules on the spot. The judge may decide later. Before you leave the courthouse, make sure you know if the judge ruled. Get a copy of any Judgment, ruling or order.
- If you win, the judge may ask you to prepare a paper called a "Judgment." See if the court has a form or sample, and say you do not have a lawyer.
- Sometimes both sides will be asked to sign the Judgment before the judge signs it. Your signature shows that the written Judgment reflects the judge's ruling on your case. It does not mean that you agree with the judge.
- Make sure the clerk's office has your correct address. The court may need to send you something by mail or serve you with papers later on.