For most people, going to court is a new experience. You will be better prepared to present your case if you understand the process. This page offers pointers to help you prepare for your court hearing.
Even if you don't hire a lawyer to represent you in court, you may want to talk to a lawyer before your hearing. The lawyer can help you organize your case so you are as effective as possible. The information on this page relates to hearings in front of a judge. The process rules can be very complex, and the judge cannot generally assist you in representing yourself.
These guidelines are general. You should read all information on this site about your particular case type. You may need to know about special considerations not addressed here.
If you have trouble speaking or understanding English, let the court know as soon as possible. The court can arrange for an interpreter to participate in the hearing. Click here for more information about the Vermont Court Interpreter Program.
You must be prepared to prove your case when you go to court.
First, you should understand what you need to prove. Read on this site about your particular kind of case so you have an idea of what the law is and what kind of information the judge will be looking for.
Second, figure out how you are going to prove the things you need to prove. Many times you and the other party will be the only witnesses. Your testimony may be all that you need to prove your case. But remember: you cannot prove something by telling the judge what someone else told you. You will need to prove your case based on firsthand knowledge. In some cases you will need documents and other witnesses to help you prove your case.
Before your hearing you should round up all the papers (also called “documents” or “exhibits”) that you will need to prove your case. In choosing the proper papers to bring to court, the best guide is common sense. For example:
- If the case involves an agreement or contract, you should bring the written agreement between you and the other party.
- If it is a landlord-tenant case, you should bring the lease. If the issue involves payment of rent, you should bring records of rental payments, including payment ledgers or cancelled checks.
- If the case involves bills or debts, you should bring copies of the bills or agreement creating the debt, as well as copies of any cancelled checks.
- If your case involves money damages due to faulty repairs (automobile or otherwise), bring any repair bills or written estimates for repair.
- If your case involves claims of damaged property, bring photographs of the property.
- If your income is relevant to the claims in the case, bring pay stubs and tax returns to show your income.
- In many cases correspondence between you and the other party is relevant. For example, in a foreclosure case the letters the bank sent you may be relevant to whether and when you got notice. Sometimes letters proposing settlements are not admissible.
If you are in doubt about a document, bring it. You don't have to use it. But you will be glad to have the option to use the exhibit if you decide you need it.
It's important that you organize your documents. You won't be able to focus on presenting your case if you are searching through a stack of papers during the hearing trying to find a particular document. Organize your documents carefully so that you can find exactly what you are looking for when you need it.
If you bring documents to give to the court to support your case, you must bring a copy for the other party. The other party has the right to see any document you file with the court. You should also have a set to keep for yourself.
A witness who saw or heard something firsthand may help you make your case. That's especially true if you didn't see it yourself. Your statement that someone else told you that something happened cannot prove that it did. A witness who observed it firsthand has to testify.
Sometimes witnesses can provide helpful expert testimony. For example, in cases involving poor workmanship (such as repairs on your car), an experienced and unbiased person in the same trade makes an ideal witness to testify on your behalf. An accountant may be able to analyze the other party's financial records in a way that you cannot. Or a physician may be able to explain your injuries.
If you will rely on witnesses to help make your case, you should make arrangements with them well in advance of the hearing. Some witnesses are willing to come to court voluntarily to explain to the judge what they saw or heard. Occasionally, a witness will not come to court voluntarily or cannot get permission to leave work. In that case you may need to compel the witness to attend by using a subpoena.
Subpoenas and Telephone Testimony
If you have a witness who is important to your case but won’t come to the court hearing voluntarily, you can ask the clerk to issue a subpoena. There is no charge for the subpoena, but you will have to pay the witness $30.00 for the witness’s appearance in court, plus mileage for travel to and from court. You can check the mileage rate here. The subpoena must be delivered to the witness in person, along with the witness fee and mileage reimbursement. You can have it delivered by a sheriff or any other person who is not a party and who is least 18 years old. You cannot deliver the subpoena yourself—neither the plaintiff nor the defendant can deliver the subpoena to a witness.
In some cases the court may allow you to have a witness testify by telephone. To do this for a case in the family division, you have to show that:
- The testimony is necessary to a fair determination of your case
- The witness is physically unable to be there or cannot be produced without substantial administrative burden or cost to the state
You must file a written motion in advance of the hearing to ask the court to allow a person to testify by telephone. The court will allow the telephone testimony only if:
- The court is assured that the person testifying by telephone is who they say they are, and the court can administer the oath to that witness
- All parties and the judge or magistrate can examine or cross-examine the witness, which may include questioning about a document or other exhibit (so you will have to make sure the court and the witness all have access to copies of the exhibit)
- The telephone connection is good enough that all participants can hear and speak at the appropriate time (so cell phones may not work)
- Allowing telephone testimony won't be a substantial obstacle to a full and fair presentation of the testimony and won't substantially prejudice the witness or any party
In cases in the civil division (like landlord-tenant, foreclosure, and collections cases) or the probate division (like guardianship cases or challenges to wills), you should ask the court in advance about calling a witness by telephone. You can do that by filing a motion explaining the reasons you need to rely on telephone testimony. You should also describe the steps you will take to make sure everyone can hear the witness, the witness can hear everyone, and everyone will have access to the same exhibits.
You will become aware of security measures the moment you enter a courthouse. You will pass through a screening station. Court security officers staff this station. They will check the contents of your purse, briefcase, or any other bag. They will do this by passing the bag through an X-ray machine or doing a visual inspection. You may also have to walk through some form of metal detector. This screening process identifies any forbidden items. The court security officers will guide you through this process. You should always follow their directions.
Weapons are not allowed in any court facility. This includes firearms or deadly weapons of any type, including:
- Aerosol bottles
- Knitting needles
You will not be allowed to come into the courthouse if you attempt to bring a forbidden item into a court facility. You will need to remove the item from your possession. The court will not have storage space available. You will need to store any prohibited item at an off-site location, such as your vehicle.
Other items that would be disruptive to court proceedings are also banned. This may include pagers and cell phones, which must be placed in silent mode.
If you have any questions, please ask a court security officer or court staff member.
The people in the courtroom will vary, depending on the nature of your case.
In every case the judge sits in the middle of the bench in front of the courtroom. The judge will be wearing a black robe. In cases involving child support, parentage and temporary parental rights and responsibilities, and parent-child contact, the judge will be a child support magistrate. In some cases one or two assistant judges will sit at the bench next to the judge. Assistant judges are elected officials. They may be lawyers but do not have to be. Their job in court is to help the judge decide what the facts are. They do not make legal rulings.
A court officer will generally be sitting near the bench, usually off to the side. The court officer helps the court run the day's proceedings. That includes calling the cases and helping the court keep order.
You will generally sit at a table facing the bench on one side of the room. The other party and the other party's lawyer will be at the other table. In some courthouses the tables have labels on them that say "plaintiff" or "defendant." You should sit at the table that fits your role. If you aren't sure which table to sit at, you can ask the court officer or the judge.
If your case involves child support, a representative from the Office of Child Support may participate.
If it is a criminal case, a lawyer representing the state will be there. That will likely be a States Attorney, Deputy States Attorney, or Assistant Attorney General. That is the prosecutor.
If it is a juvenile case, a representative from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) will be there in addition to the prosecutor. A guardian ad litem on behalf of the child(ren) will be there, along with the child(ren)'s lawyer.
Most cases are open to the public. That means that anyone can be in the courtroom during your hearing. Juvenile, mental health, and adoption cases are not open to the public.
What you will be experiencing in the courtroom is not what you have seen on television or in the movies. You should consider watching a hearing or two before your own hearing to get a sense of how things work in the courtroom. Arriving early also gives you a chance to talk with the other party and maybe settle your case without a hearing.
When you get to court, please check in with the court officer in the courtroom. The court officer keeps track of who is at court and ready to start a hearing. When the court calls your case, come forward to one of the tables facing the judge.
How you conduct yourself can make a difference in your case. The best way to make sure the judge can focus on the facts of your case is to avoid distractions and inappropriate behavior in the courtroom.
- Please stand when the judge enters or leaves the courtroom.
- Please stand when it is your turn to speak to the judge or magistrate, unless they tell you that you may stay seated.
- Be polite when you speak. Try to be calm. Do your best not to interrupt—you will get a chance to respond.
- Give the court all the information it needs, but keep it brief. It may be helpful to make an outline of what you want to say for your own use. This way, you will be sure you haven’t left anything out.
- Speak loudly enough so that everyone in the courtroom can hear you.
- If you cannot hear what others in the courtroom are saying, let the judge know.
- If you do not understand what is happening, feel free to ask your lawyer or the judge to explain.
Most hearings begin with each side making an opening statement. Then one side presents all of their witnesses and evidence. Next, the other side gets to present theirs. At the end, both sides make closing arguments. The side that goes first is usually the party that has the burden of proof in the case.
Usually, the party that calls a witness will ask the witness a series of questions. Then the other side gets a chance to cross-examine that witness. The first party may ask additional questions after that to clear up questions raised by the cross-examination.
This is the most common approach, but actual hearings vary dramatically. In many cases the judge will begin by asking both parties questions. If neither party is represented by a lawyer, the judge may guide the hearing more by asking questions of the witnesses first. You should take your lead from the judge. But if you brought witnesses or have documents (or "exhibits"), you should let the judge know.
Remember, when you are asking your witnesses questions or you are cross-examining the other party's witnesses, the goal is to ask them questions. It is not the time for you to testify. You will get the chance to have your say directly when you testify.
Also understand that the procedures for presenting information to the court can be complicated. The court will follow the Vermont Rules of Evidence (after you link, click "I agree" and scroll down to the Rules of Evidence). These rules limit what kind of evidence the court can consider.
The most common mistake nonlawyers make is that they ask the judge to consider what is called "hearsay" testimony. Hearsay is testimony that is not based on firsthand knowledge. Instead, the witness tries to tell the judge what someone else said that they saw or heard. Even if you have a written affidavit from someone with firsthand knowledge that describes what they observed, if the person is not in court to testify, the affidavit is likely "hearsay" and the court usually won't consider it. That's why it's so important that you have the witnesses you need in court for your hearing.
At the hearing the judge focuses on allowing you and the other party to have your say and getting the facts in order to understand the case. The judge may decide the case right away or may take more time to think about it. If the judge does not decide the case at the hearing, the court will send you the decision by mail.