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Trial Prep for The Pro Se Client’s Case in Chief

Pro Se means a person is representing him/herself in court. Most pro se litigants do not know how to prepare for trial, do not know how to present their case to the court, have fatal misconceptions about what is admissible evidence and what is NOT admissible evidence, and do not know how to move documents into evidence.

Trial preparation is time consuming and the general rule of thumb is 3 hours prepping for every hour in court. Most trials revolve around time sharing, child support and alimony. The worst trials involve personal property worth less than $300-$500; judges and lawyers alike hate litigating ‘low end’ personal property because these can be the most time consuming. Before you decide to litigate over low value personal property, please do a cost-benefit analysis to determine if it’s worth it, and don’t forget to calculate for the aggravation!

Trial preparation begins with reading the relevant statutes as these are the laws the courts are required to follow. Never go to court without reading the statutes involved in your case! Reading the statutes is step number one and you can find the relevant statutes on this website under the ?? tab.

Step number two is listing your witnesses. Some witnesses will come willingly to court, some witnesses will need to be subpoenaed, some witnesses are hostile and some witnesses are neutral third parties. Letters will not substitute for a witness and are not admissible in court, even if it’s notarized - because the “letter” cannot be cross examined. This is one of the most common and fatal mistakes pro se clients make: bringing letters to court instead of the witnesses.

Step number three is listing the documents you want to give the Court and knowing how to get those documents into evidence. Many documents require giving notice to the other party prior to trial with a deadline, some documents require authentication by a records custodian, some documents are considered hearsay exceptions and all documents require “magic words” that lay the foundation for their admissibility into the record. Getting documents into evidence is extremely important and I have seen trained, licensed attorneys flounder and fail at moving documents into evidence. Getting documents moved into evidence is critical if you want the court to consider that evidence. If the document is not moved into evidence, the court does not, will not, and cannot consider that document as evidence. Failure to move documents into evidence also greatly reduces your chance of success if you want to appeal the case. Failure to move items and documents into evidence is another fatal flaw pro se clients are likely to make.

Step number four is marking all your deadlines on a calendar and meeting those deadlines. The average “Order Setting Non Jury Trial” for a case scheduled for a half day or longer has multiple different deadlines that need to be met. For instance, there is a deadline to provide your witness list to the court and the opposing party, which will include the name, address and phone number of each witness and many courts require the parties to give a summary of the witness’ testimony. There is a deadline to provide your exhibit list, which is a fairly detailed list of documents, photos, text messages, certificates, etc that will or may help your case if the item is moved into evidence. The Courts often include orders directing the parties to exchange documents to be used at trial before the trial date, so you have to know that deadline too. There are lots of deadlines in orders setting non jury trial and those deadlines need to be met.

Step number five for the pro se litigant: always hire a court reporter to be in court with you. Court proceedings are not automatically recorded in family court; so if you want a record of the proceedings you will need to hire a court reporter. A court reporter can also be somewhat like insurance where a judge may be a little more careful while conducting the court proceeding with a pro se litigant.

If you are going to trial and do not have an attorney representing you, then Self Help Legal Services can help you tremendously. If you can’t have an attorney sitting next to you in court, the next best thing is to have an attorney preparing your trial notebook and coaching you behind the scenes.