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WHEN YOU MAY NEED A LAWYER
- If you have a complicated case or if your case may become complicated.
- If you would like legal advice or assistance.
- If you would like to discuss strategies for your case.
- If you would like a confidential attorney-client relationship.
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
If you choose to represent yourself:
- You have a right to represent yourself in court in a civil case.
- If you represent yourself, the court will hold you to the same standards as if you were a lawyer.
- You have the right to access the SelfServe Center and utilize the local law library.
- You have the right to be represented by an attorney.
- You are responsible for reading and completing all required court forms and documents.
- You cannot file a lawsuit for the wrong reason. For example, if you file a lawsuit to harass, cause delay or needlessly increase the cost of litigation, or commit fraud upon the court you may have to pay attorney fees and court costs to the other party.
- You are responsible for keeping track of all deadlines, especially deadlines for filing paperwork and serving the other party.
- You are responsible for notifying/serving the other party in your case.
- You are responsible for keeping the court updated with all of your current address and contact information.
- You are responsible for keeping track and notifying the other party of your court dates.
WHAT SHOULD I CONSIDER BEFORE DECIDING TO REPRESENT MYSELF?
Some cases are simple and straightforward. Others are complex and difficult. You need to consider the complexities and specific issues involved in your case and what is at stake for you when deciding whether to go ahead without a lawyer. If you find, as your case proceeds, that representing yourself is too difficult, you may have the option at that time to hire a lawyer to represent you. Lawyers can be found on the NC Bar Web-site or on the Mecklenburg County Bar Web-site.
How hard it will be to represent yourself depends on your individual case. Many people have successfully represented themselves. Others have gone to court and found that their case was more complicated or that the court process was more difficult than they expected. These are some things to consider when deciding whether to represent yourself:
Are you good at completing paperwork? For example, do you complete your own income tax forms? In most cases, there are forms to be completed. In addition, there are times when you must tell the court what you want in a written document called a “motion.” You must create these written documents without the court’s assistance. All forms and documents filed with the court should be easy to read – typed if at all possible – and must comply with court rules.
Are you good at meeting deadlines? Courts run on a schedule. You will need to meet the court’s deadlines. Regardless of your other commitments, including your job, your childcare arrangements and other personal responsibilities, you must appear in court whenever you are scheduled to do so. If you do not comply with court deadlines and court procedures, there will be consequences and you may lose your chance to have your case heard by the court.
Are you comfortable speaking in public? You will need to be able to tell your story in a formal setting in front of other people. The judge, the opposing party, or his or her lawyer, may ask questions and challenge your version of events. Some issues are very emotional, and you will need to remain calm.
Do you have written documents or witnesses to help you present your story? You need to gather all documents related to your case, organize them and bring them to court. You will also need to prepare your witnesses to testify. There are complex rules of evidence that govern whether you can present this information in court, and if so, how to present it.
Are you prepared to spend time looking things up in a library or on the Internet? Most cases require learning about the law, procedures and rules. You may need to do research on a wide variety of issues, including whether your problem is one the court can help resolve and how to present your case to the court.
Does the other side have a lawyer? Lawyers are trained professionals. Many spend years learning how to present cases in the courtroom and studying the law. Although you may be able to handle your case, if the other side has a lawyer, it may be more difficult for you.
HOW THE COURTS CAN BE HELPFUL IN THE PROCESS
Court Staff Can:
- Give you general information on court rules, procedures and practices.
- Advise you of the requirements to have your case considered by the court.
- Provide you with the available court forms and instructions.
- Check your forms for completeness.
- Provide you with a list of lawyer referral services and other services where you can get legal information including the available legal clinics and Attorney for the day program
- Answer questions or direct you to available resources about the meaning of terms used in the court process.
Court Staff Cannot:
- Tell you what words to use in your court papers.
- Tell you what to say in court.
- Talk to the judge for you or let you talk to the judge outside of court.
- Give any opinion about what may or may not happen if you bring your case to court.
- Provide legal research.
- Recommend a lawyer or provide any legal advice.
- Change an order signed by a judge.
Remember, court staff are allowed to give you information. Court staff cannot act as your attorney. If you choose to represent yourself in court, you will have the same responsibilities as an attorney. Read the Disclaimer for more details on the limitations of our services.
TIPS FOR PREPARING FOR YOUR DAY IN COURT
Observe another hearing.
Try to observe another court hearing before your hearing. You will become more familiar with procedures and you will be better prepared to present your case. It is especially helpful to observe the judge who will be hearing your case. Try to observe a hearing that is similar to your type of hearing. For more information, go to Court Observation.
Know when your case will be heard
To see the schedule for your case before you go to court, go to Court Calendar. Select the court in which your case will be heard. Next you will see the list organized by date. Once you choose the correct date you will choose whether it is a motion, pretrial or trial by judge. You can also choose to search for your case by Defendant name.
If you have a disability, contact the ADA Coordinator for the Court at least 48 hours in advance to let them know what accommodation you may need. For more information, see our webpage on ADA accommodations or to make a request contact Maura E. Chavez at 704-686-0268 or Maura.E.Chavez@nccourts.org. For more information, go to ADA Accomodations.
If you or a witness does not speak English, please see the Mecklenburg County Courthouse website to completed the appropriate form for a non-Spanish Interpreter or to access the Registry of Qualified Spanish Court Interpreters. For more information or to make a request, contact Maura E. Chavez at 704-686-0268 or Maura.E.Chavez@nccourts.org. For more information, go to Language Access Services.
Do not be distracted / Childcare
Plan to be at court for several hours. Do not schedule anything else. Do not bring children to court unless they are part of the hearing. The Mecklenburg County Courthouse offers childcare to children between the ages of 6 weeks and 12 years of age whose family members are conducting business at the courthouse. Reservations are encouraged and can be made by calling 704-686-0285. For more information, go to Larry King’s Courthouse. While in court please turn off your phone and pager.
Know where you are going
Find out how to get to the courthouse, courthouse hours and where to park to make sure that you are on time. For the address and to map directions to the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, go to Courthouse Information.
Upon entering the courthouse, you will be expected to pass through a metal detector. Any metal object on your body must be removed and inspected, including belt buckles and steel-toed shoes. You are not permitted to bring the following items into the courthouse:
- Knives of any type or size INCLUDING pocket knives or tools of trade.
- Scissors (or any other sharp metal objects).
- Firearms or ammunition.
- Cameras or tape recorders.
Briefcases, purses, bags, backpacks and any other items may be subject to search by security personnel. For more information, go to Courthouse Security.
TIPS ON HOW TO PREPARE YOUR CASE FOR TRIAL
Guidelines for Courtroom Behavior
- Be on time for your hearing or trial. Allow extra time to find parking. Sometimes hearings can take longer than expected, so plan for extra time on your meter.
- You do not need to dress like a lawyer or buy new clothes. Do, however, dress in a dignified way. Unless it is an absolute emergency, avoid wearing jeans, T-shirts, shorts, tank-tops, sleeveless athletic shirts, cut off shirts, and undershirts in the courtroom.
- No food or drinks are allowed in the courtroom.
- It is not advisable to bring your children. Ask someone to watch them for you or reserve childcare at the court.
- Report to the courtroom you are assigned to.
- Review your paperwork before the hearing or trial. Be familiar with your papers. You may use written notes or an outline during the trial. Stick to the facts. Do not ramble when offering evidence to support your side of the story.
- Have your exhibits labeled, copied and organized. Remember, you will need at least four photo copies of any document or picture you plan to give to the judge.
- When the judge asks you to speak, stand up and face the judge.
- The hearing or trial will proceed as follows:
- The judge will ask you and the other person to make an opening statement. This should be a brief statement that tells the judge what you are asking for. You can refer to your proposed order of child support, parenting plan and trial or hearing brief. The plaintiff or moving party speaks first, then the defendant or non-moving party.
- After opening statements, the plaintiff or moving party calls his or her witnesses to testify. After each witness has testified, the defendant or non-moving party may ask questions of the witness (cross examination). The plaintiff or moving party may ask questions on redirect. The defendant or non-moving party then puts on his or her witnesses and the process is repeated. There are very specific rules of evidence which apply.
- When the judge asks you questions, be direct. If you don’t know an answer say so. Do not be afraid to admit that you do not know something.
- Take your time when answering questions. Give the answer as much thought as you need to understand it and formulate your answer. You may be ordered to explain your answer.
- Be respectful and courteous with the court. Always address the judge as “Your Honor”. Do not interrupt. If something needs to be clarified, wait until it is your turn to speak or ask to speak again.
- Be sincere. Do not be sarcastic or argue with the court or the other person. Stay calm. Maintain your composure, even if the person testifying is hurting your feelings or lying. Do not huff, roll your eyes or throw your pencil.
- If you are stating dates, times and places, etc. be exact. If you cannot be exact, make it understood that you are only estimating.
- Speak clearly and distinctly, using words, phrases and terminology that you understand. Keep your hands away from your mouth and speak loudly enough so the judge can easily hear you.
- Remain courteous to the judge after the ruling. Ask the judge who will write up the order. The judge must sign the order before it becomes effective. Make sure you understand what is going to happen next before you leave the courtroom.
You may bring a friend for moral support. However, that person must remain silent.
- Avoid laughing or talking about the case in the hallway or restrooms of the courthouse in such a way that people, lawyers or witnesses involved in the case may see you or hear you.
- These are the rules that apply to attorneys and you must follow them as well.
- BE SURE the court has your current mailing address and phone number. If safety is a concern, you can ask for the information to be made confidential.
FINDING A LAWYER
For help finding a lawyer, go to Help Finding An Attorney.
Q. If I choose to represent myself in my case, will the Judge help me or give me special consideration because I am not an attorney?
A. No. The Judge must remain impartial in hearing your case and cannot give you legal advice. If you choose to represent yourself for the entire case or part of the case, you are expected to learn the relevant law and procedure. If you are not confident in your ability to represent yourself, you should hire an attorney.
Q. If one litigant is represented by an attorney in court and the other is not, will the rules of evidence be less strictly adhered to and the expectations of the litigant without an attorney be reduced?
A. No. The rules of evidence and the law will be equally applied to all parties appearing before the court.