Representing yourself in court is a serious and often terrifying prospect. The court system can be confusing and intimidating to even the most seasoned attorney, much less the general public. In this two-part series, you will find useful information to help you feel more comfortable if you intend to represent yourself in court. Part 1 discusses general rules and definitions applicable to many cases in Hamilton County.
A note on self-representation...
You have the right to represent yourself in any court proceeding. However, the case could have long-term consequences and you may wish to consult with an attorney to provide you advice and guidance through the process. This guide is intended only as a basic explanation of court terms and etiquette. The information provided is not legal advice and is not a substitute for advice from a licensed attorney. If you decide you would like an attorney to represent you, a list of resources to help meet your needs can be found at the bottom of this guide.
Good rules of thumb for any court proceeding:
- Be on time. Plan to be at least 15 minutes early in case there are last minute changes or papers that must be filed.
- Dress respectfully, as though you were going to an important job interview. Many courts will not allow you to appear in shorts or tank tops, for example. First impressions are important!
- Use respectful language. Address the judge or magistrate as “Your Honor” and all others as “Sir”, “Ma’am”, “Mister”, or “Ms”.
- Never yell, curse or interrupt.
- Enter and leave the court room quietly.
- Always stand when the judge enters or leave the court. Always stand when addressing the judge.
- Speak directly to the judge unless questioning a witness.
- Have all of your paperwork ready. Bring copies of all of your paperwork. Bring a pad and paper to take notes.
- Do not bring children unless specifically asked to do so by the judge.
- Turn off cell phones and pagers.
- No eating, drinking or chewing gum.
- Do not use drugs or alcohol before appearing in court.
- Speak slowly and clearly. Remember that all cases are being recorded by a court reporter or recording device.
- Many court proceedings are open to the public. Some people feel more comfortable in their own case if they observe other cases. You should feel free to sit it on other cases open to the public to get a feel for how the court works and what you can expect.
A few common terms:
- Pro Se Litigant: Someone who is representing themselves in a court case.
- Petitioner (or Plaintiff): The party who brings the suit in a court of law.
- Respondent (or Defendant): The party against whom the suit is brought.
- Pleading: Paperwork that is filed with the court in which a party to the case makes claims or presents defenses. Examples: Complaint. Answer. Answer and Counterclaim.
- Petition: A form that requests certain action from the court.
- Notice of Appearance: A form that tells the court who will be representing you in court.
- Summons: A notice to the Defendant that a case has been filed against him or her, requiring that the person come to court.
- Subpoena: An order commanding a person to provide evidence in some way, such as appearing in court to testify and/or provide documents to the court.
If you choose to represent yourself in a case, it is your responsibility to ensure that you meet all court requirements and deadlines for filing. You should research statutes, court rules and procedures pertaining to your case. You may present witnesses and evidence when it is appropriate in your case. Keep copies of all documents for your records.
The Hamilton County Law Library would like to thank the Indiana Supreme Court for providing the groundwork for much of the information contained in this guide.