How to Prepare for Your Day in Court

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Finding Out the Schedule for Your Trial

In many District Court cases, the Clerk’s Office will set the trial date within 60 days after the complaint was filed. When a Notice of Intention to Defend can be filed within 60 days of service (such as for a corporation), then the Clerk’s Office schedules the trial within 90 days of filing the complaint. Also, the Court may schedule a pre-trial conference in order to streamline the trial. “Discovery” and evidence issues may be topics of discussion during the conference. A party may request the conference, or the Court itself may call one.

In Circuit Court, parties will receive a scheduling order no later than 30 days after the defendant files an answer. The scheduling order sets timelines for trial preparation and lays the ground rules for the conduct of the trial. In complex cases, a Court may order a scheduling conference.  There may be a pre-trial conference, as well. Pre-trial statements or orders outline the topics discussed and the rules to follow after you have a scheduling conference.

Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, some cases may have to be postponed. A trial that has already begun in court may have to be “continued” until some issue or scheduling conflict is resolved.


Finding Out More Facts: The “Discovery” Process

In order to prepare for trial, both parties have a right to find out information from the other party.  This process is called “discovery.”

In District Court, the discovery process centers on the use of “interrogatories.” Interrogatories are written questions for the other party. Usually, the parties are limited to 15 questions. The defendant must send the interrogatories to the plaintiff within 10 days of the deadline for filing the Notice of Intention to Defend. The plaintiff must send interrogatories within 10 days of receiving the defendant’s Notice of Intention to Defend. If one party does not answer the questions properly, the other party may ask the court to take certain actions, called “sanctions,” against the non-responsive party. The requirements for District Court interrogatories are contained in Maryland Rule 3-421 and in the Appendix of Forms at the end of the Rules. Read the Rule: Maryland Rule 3-421

Circuit Court rules for discovery are much more complex than in District Court. The parties also have other procedures available in addition to interrogatories. For example, parties may use “depositions,” which are formal in-person questioning sessions. Other discovery procedures include requests for documents and physical or mental examinations of people. Discovery rules  for Circuit Court cases are contained in the Maryland Rules, beginning with Md. Rule 2-401. It is important to consult the Maryland Rules during the discovery process in a Circuit Court case. Your local law library has additional books about discovery in Maryland. Read the Rule: Maryland Rule 2-401


Ensuring Access to the Courts

If you or one of your witnesses has a disability, plan ahead to make sure that the courthouse is able to accommodate any needs you might have. To request accommodations, you must file this form with the court not less than 30 days before the date of trial: Form CC-DC 49, Request for Accommodations for Persons with Disabilities . (You can file this form in whichever trial court is hearing your case.) If you do not believe that the accommodations the court offers will be sufficient, you may file a Grievance Form, CC-DC 50 .

If you or one of your witnesses does not speak English, the court will provide interpreter services. To request an interpreter, you must file this form with the court no less than 30 days before the date of trial: Form CC-DC 41, Request for Spoken Language Interpreter/Solicitud para Interpretacion de Idoma Hablodo . (You can file this form in whichever trial court is hearing your case.)


Getting to the Courthouse

The trial itself is your opportunity for your day in court. It is your chance to tell the court your side of the story. For that reason, it is very important that you pay special attention to organizing your documents, following the rules of the court, and showing respect for the court and the other party to your case. If you do not appear in court, the case very likely will be decided against you automatically. There may be very rare instances, such as a serious automobile accident or the death of a family member that will prevent you from attending your trial. Even if this happens, you must contact the courthouse as soon as you know you will not be able to appear in court.

The following tips may help you on the day of your trial:

  • In almost every case, court proceedings are open to the public.  You should take a few hours to sit in on a case to get an idea of what happens during a trial.
  • Make sure you keep a well-organized file of all the paperwork in your case.
  • The day before the trial, plan your transportation to get to the courthouse on time.  If you are driving, use a map and find out where you will park. If you are using public transportation, make sure that you know the route and timetable. Be sure to bring some money for public transportation fare or parking.
  • The day before your trial, make sure you place your file, directions to the courthouse, and money in a location where you will easily find them the next day.
  • Plan to arrive about an hour before your case will be heard. This will give you enough time to pass through security, locate the courtroom, check in with court staff, and gather your thoughts.
  • Dress in your most respectful clothing. Treat your trial appearance with seriousness.
  • Maintain respect both outside and inside the courtroom. Even though the other party may make you angry or frustrated, it is important to be mindful of your behavior, expressions, and language.


At Your Trial

Most people have probably seen criminal trials on television shows. Civil trials are similar in many ways. For example, there will be witnesses, evidence, and a final decision. There are important differences though.

  • First, there is always a jury in a serious criminal case, but many civil cases are heard by a judge, without a jury being present.
  • Second, in a criminal case, a defendant cannot be found guilty unless jurors find that the state proved its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil case, the “trier of fact,” usually the judge, decides the case based on the “preponderance of evidence.” This means that the judge will listen carefully to both sides, consider the evidence, and then find one party’s story more likely to have happened than the other party’s story. The judge will rule in favor of the party with the most likely story.

The trial begins with the opportunity for the plaintiff to make an opening statement, which is a general statement of the case. The defendant may do the same. Then, the judge listens to the plaintiff’s testimony and evidence. If the plaintiff is self-represented, then the plaintiff will be sworn in as a witness. The defendant can cross examine the plaintiff at this time. The judge, if there is no jury, may also ask questions during the trial. The defendant then has an opportunity to present his or her side of the case, with the plaintiff allowed to cross examine. At the end of these presentations, the defendant, and then the plaintiff, may offer brief closing statements to sum up the case.

It is important to think about your audience. In most cases this will be the judge (unless one of the parties asked for a jury trial in Circuit Court). Judges play a very important role in managing your case.  The judge sets the stage for the case and explains what is going to happen. He or she will also ask questions. When the judge is the audience, it is important to remember that you should speak only to the judge and not the other party. ALWAYS address the judge as “Your Honor.” Be sure to stand whenever you talk. It is permissible to ask the judge questions about technical procedures during the trial. Otherwise, the only time a party should be speaking to a judge about a case is at trial and with the other party present.

There are special rules regarding the presentation of a case because evidence is so important to the court. One of the most basic rules to remember is that the plaintiff has the “burden of proof.” This means that it’s the plaintiff’s job to prove his or her own case. 

The evidence that either party shows the court must meet 3 requirements:

  1. Be relevant to the case;
  2. Be reliable; and
  3. Be authentic.

In order to make sure your evidence meets all three requirements, you must have one or more witnesses give testimony explaining the evidence. Witnesses must have personal knowledge about the evidence. Of course, if you are representing yourself, you will be your own witness. The process of describing your evidence correctly sometimes is called “preparing the proper evidentiary foundation.” You can do this by always being prepared to answer at least 5 questions about your evidence: WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHERE, WHEN and HOW. For example, if you were submitting a signed contract into evidence, you should be prepared to tell the court that you and the other party signed it on a certain date in a certain place. Each piece of evidence is called an “exhibit.” It is also important that you submit your exhibits to the court by “moving” that they be admitted into evidence after you have explained the evidence by laying the proper foundation. A plaintiff may introduce an exhibit into evidence by saying something like, “ Your Honor, I move that Plaintiff's Exhibit 'A' be introduced into evidence.” Usually, the plaintiff will present exhibits in chronological order, including any copies of “demand letters” (with certified mail receipt) written to the defendant. Parties should also be prepared to admit into evidence any documents describing the extent of the claim, such as repair bills. There are rules to follow to make, or “compel,” a witness to appear at your trial or to have someone not a party to the suit produce documents for evidence. These rules involve the court issuing a “subpoena.”  The District Court procedure for this is in Maryland Rule 3-510, and the Circuit Court procedure for this is in Maryland Rule 2-510. Read the Rules: Maryland Rules 3-510 and 2-510

If one party does not submit evidence correctly, the other party may “object” and provide the legal rules for doing so. A party may object immediately after the other party’s statement by saying, “Your Honor, I object.” Then, the party objecting must provide justification. The judge will then either “sustain” the objection (which means that the objection is correct) or “overrule” it (which means that the judge does not believe the objection is correct). It is important to state an objection whenever necessary because if there is no objection, then the party may lose the right to appeal that issue.

After the end of a party’s presentation of evidence, the opposing party may make a “motion for judgment.” This motion asks the court to automatically decide the case in favor of the party making the motion because the other party has not met the legal requirements of proving his or her case. If the judge rejects, or “denies,” the motion, he or she will proceed with the rest of the case.

After both parties finish presenting evidence and give closing statements, the judge makes sure to consider everything that was said or offered as exhibits. A judge hearing the case hands down a decision, known as a “judgment,” as soon as possible. In Circuit Court jury trials, of course, the jurors discuss what they heard. There are many rules related to juries. You should consult the Maryland Rules for more information. 


Enforcing Judgments:  Collecting Your Money

A judgment cannot be enforced until 10 days after the entry of the judgment. This time period allows the party owing money the opportunity to file post-trial motions discussed below.

Sometimes, a party that owes money will pay right away. Other times, however, they cannot or will not pay. A party can only try to get paid, or “enforce a judgment,” by following the procedures outlined in the Maryland Rules. The party that is entitled to money because he or she won a lawsuit is called the “judgment creditor.” The party who owes money is known as the “judgment debtor.” One way for a judgment creditor to find out how the judgment debtor will be able to pay is through the discovery procedures discussed above. Discovery may help a judgment creditor know which of the following ways of enforcing a judgment would be best:

  • Writ of Execution by Levy on Property. A judgment creditor can receive this writ by filing a written request with the clerk, including the judgment debtor’s address, amount owed, the location of the property and instructions for the sheriff
  • Writ of Garnishment of Property or Wages. A judgment creditor files this request in a similar way, but he or she must also include information about the “garnishee,” a third-party, such as the judgment debtor’s employer, who has money or property for the debtor.
  • Writ Enforcing a Judgment Awarding Possession of Property. When requesting this action, a judgment creditor must also pay special attention to the proper description of the property.
  • An order specifically applicable to partnerships. The Circuit Court procedure for this is in Maryland Rule 2-649, and the District Court procedure for this is in Maryland Rule 3-649. Read the Rules: Maryland Rules 2-649 and 3-649
  • In Circuit Court, an order for other “relief” necessary for enforcement.

It is important to remember that judgment debtors and garnishees also have certain rights. For that reason, rules pertaining to judgment enforcement are relatively complex in both courts. In practice, getting paid sometimes takes a lot of time, organization, and energy. You should consult the Maryland Rules or books about judgment enforcement at your local law library for more information. 

After the judgment debtor fully pays the judgment, the judgment creditor must file a written statement that says the judgment has been paid. This is called a “Satisfaction of Money Judgment.” If a judgment creditor does not file this document when payment has been made, the judgment debtor can file a motion for an order stating that the judgment was satisfied.


Options for Responding to Judgments

If a party does not agree with the judgment, he or she has several options available. A party in either trial court may choose to:

  • File a Motion for New Trial. A party must file this motion within 10 days after the entry of the judgment and state all of the reasons for a new trial. (According to the case, Green v. Brooks, 125 Md. App. 349, the 10-day period begins on the day that the clerk’s office enters the judgment on the court’s docket and not on the day the judge signs the order.) This motion will be granted only for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons.
  • File a Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment. A party must file this motion within the 10-day period noted above. A party files this motion in order to ask the court to consider additional evidence, findings, or reasons for the changes and make the necessary changes to the decision.
  • File a Motion to Revise the Judgment. A party may file this motion at any time in order to correct technical or serious errors, such as fraud, mistakes, or irregularities. If a party files this motion within 30 days of the entry of judgment, the court has the power to change its judgment for other reasons, such as new or previously unknown evidence. When a party files this motion within 10 days of the entry of judgment, then any filing of an appeal can wait until the court rules on this motion. For this reason, it is best to file this motion as soon as possible.

In Circuit Court, there are a few additional motions that a party may use. One is In Banc Review, outlined in Maryland Rule 2-551.  Another one, available only in jury trials, is a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, outlined in Maryland Rule 2-532. Read the Rules: Maryland Rules 2-551 and 2-532

Finally, a party can always appeal to a higher court. The appeals process must start within 30 days of the entry of the judgment. Also, a party may move for a new trial, for an altered or amended judgment, or for a revised judgment, and then appeal to a higher court. In these situations, the time to appeal is “stayed,” or delayed, until the court decides on the motion. A party then must file the notice of appeal within 30 days of the decision on the motion.


What to Expect the Day You go to Court

Who will be in the room?

The trial will be in a public courtroom. This means that you will be able to sit in the back and see the other cases being heard while you wait for your case to be called. It also means that others waiting for their cases may also be present during your case. The judge and his/her staff person will be there as well. A bailiff will be there to keep order. There will not be a court reporter. All testimony is recorded on a tape recorder. If your case is appealed to Circuit Court, a transcript (written record) must be made and sent to the Circuit Court for review. There will be a fee for this service.

What if you cannot get there on time?

You should make every effort to get there on time. Arrange in advance for childcare and reliable transportation. To plan for any problems, you should carry the telephone number for the court clerk with you as you travel on the day of the hearing.

Find the numbers for the court clerks . If you cannot arrive on time, call and ask the clerk what can be done. If you are too late, you may ask for a “continuance” (a postponement). It is up to the court as to whether you will be given the chance to have your case heard on another day.

If you know a few days in advance that you cannot attend your hearing, immediately call the clerk’s office and ask how to request a “continuance” (postponement). Keep notes on the date, time, the name of the person with whom you speak and what is said. You will need to submit the request in writing. Make sure that you include a description of the good reason you have to make the request.

Remember that the court may refuse to change the date.

  • If you are the plaintiff, this means the judge may dismiss the case.
  • If you are the defendant, the judge is likely to find against you if the plaintiff shows up and can prove his/her case.

If the date is rescheduled, the other side must be notified again.

What happens if the other side does not show up?

If the other side does not show up, ask the judge to enter a “default judgment” in your favor. If you have been able to prove your case, the judge will usually find in your favor.

What you will need to prove your case will vary based on what claims have been alleged and documents have been filed. See MD Rule 3-509 for the rules on what you will have to prove. Plan in advance for the strongest case you can. Even if the other side does not show you must still prove your damages and that the other side was at fault (liable). Read the Rule: Maryland Rule 3-509

If you have not been able to prove your case, the judge may allow you to gather the missing evidence and come again for another hearing. Being unprepared is NOT a good reason for a postponement. If the trial is rescheduled, you will need to make sure the defendant knows about the new hearing. S/he has the right to attend that hearing as well.

What if the other side has an attorney?

The first rule is “Don’t Panic.” If you have put together a good case, there is no reason why you should not be treated fairly by the court. However, if the other side has an attorney that is a very good reason to (1) prepare well and (2) negotiate.

Before the trial - If you know the other side is represented, you are in a good position (before the trial date) to negotiate. The other side must bear the costs of paying for the attorney’s time to travel and attend the hearing. This may provide an incentive for the other side to settle before the hearing in order to avoid the extra expense.

On the day of the hearing the most important person to control is you. Be polite. Attorneys can sometimes be intimidating. If an attorney appears to be angry or treats you poorly, this might just be part of the negotiation. Continue to act politely and say that you will be happy to attempt to settle the case but you will not respond to attacks. You can complain to the judge if the attorney goes too far. But remember that the attorney is likely to appear before the judge more often than you do. Try not to be too sensitive but only complain if the attorney’s behavior is consistently bad. If you choose to complain, use a concrete example and remain calm.


A special project of the Eastern Shore Regional Library under a Library Services Technology Act grant from the Division of Library Development Services/MD State Department of Education (author: Ayn H. Crawley)


How to Prepare Yourself to Present Your Case

Read the Complaint

Whether you are the person who filed the case (the “plaintiff”) or the defendant, you should reread the complaint. This is the document that the judge will have in front of him or her. S/he will be looking for an explanation of all of the items noted in the complaint. Your first task is to prove (or disprove, if you are the defendant) what was alleged in the complaint.

Then ask yourself the following questions:

  • What evidence do I need to prove (or disprove) the statements? How can I find the documents or witnesses?
  • What has happened since that time that might be relevant? (For example, has the other side made a partial payment on a debt owed to you? Have you mediated the case? Are there additional damages?)
  • Does the complaint tell all the key elements of the story?

Find copies of contracts and any other written communications between you and the other side

If you have a contract, read it. You can be sure that the other side has done so. The judge will expect both parties to be familiar with the contract. There are certain legal elements that must be proved if your goal is to enforce your contract. If you wish to show that the contract is not valid, you must explain why (disproving the same elements).

It is also helpful to look at any of the other letters or emails between the two of you. Have they made any offers? Can you settle before court? Did the other side admit anything that supports your case? Do they give you insight into the argument that the other side will make? If so, how can you prepare to counter these arguments?

Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of your case

If you are the plaintiff, review what you must prove in order to be successful. Do you have the evidence to persuade the judge? What can you do to address the weaknesses? Write down each item you must prove and put how you will prove it next to each item. Would it make sense to try to reach a settlement before the trial?

If you are the defendant, review what the plaintiff must prove. Look at each of the elements that the plaintiff must prove. Write down each item and list the evidence that you think the plaintiff will gather. For each of these elements, write down the weaknesses that you can exploit to undermine the other side’s case.

Be honest with yourself. If the plaintiff cannot prove all of the elements of the case, s/he will lose. On the other hand, if there is a good chance the other side will win, look at what you can do minimize the damage award.

Prepare your documents and evidence for trial

Once you have identified all of the important documents and any physical evidence that you plan to bring, prepare them for trial. Organized documents will help you be calm in court. You cannot be too organized.

  • Prepare copies for yourself, the other side, and the judge. Keep the originals in a separate folder. If there are multiple parties on the other side, you should prepare copies for each party.
  • Do not give any original documents to the judge or the other party unless the judge specifically asks you to do so.
  • On your copy of each document, highlight the important points that you wish to make using each document. During the trial, this will help you to find the information on each document when you need to point it out to the judge or the other side.
  • If you have more than 3 or 4 documents, you may wish to put small labels on the side of each document so you can find it more easily when they are in a binder or folder.
  • Staple the pages of a single document together. Clip related documents together. If this seems like too much work, just imagine if you dropped all of the documents on the floor. Will you quickly be able to reorganize it?
  • You may even want to put your copies of the documents in a notebook. Put the documents in the same order that you expect to use them to support your side of the story.

Identify and prepare any witnesses

Once you have looked at the legal elements that you must prove, think about whether there are any witnesses. A good witness will:

  • Be able to support a key point in your case;
  • Have “first hand” knowledge of that key point;
  • Not have a reason to lie about the situation;
  • If you need an expert, have the correct expertise; and
  • Be able and willing to testify on the day of the trial.

There is no reason to bring in a witness unless the person can support a key legal point. Especially in small claims court. The judge will want to move the case along as quickly as possible while making sure it is fair. This means that you will not want to waste time on bringing a witness in to prove a minor point.

The witness should have seen, heard or otherwise experienced whatever you want the witness to prove. You do not want to use someone who knows about the problem or incident only because you told them about it. They will not help your case.

Ideally, you want to have a witness who has no incentive to lie for you. For example, your mother may be considered a less credible witness than a local mechanic when you want to show that your car was damaged.

Practice, practice, practice your presentation

Once you are started, your story will flow easily, especially if you have a few notes in outline form and your documents are organized in the order you plan to mention them. Indicate on your notes which documents you have to prove which point. You may want to number your documents to help you keep track of them.

If you are the plaintiff (the person who filed the complaint)…

  • You will speak first. You will need to tell the judge your story. Remember, there are certain legal elements that you have to prove.

Put your notes on index cards or write them out in advance on a paper pad and bring this with you to your hearing. It is better to have a few key points written down than it is to have a “script” with every word you want to say. Remember that the judge will not have a script nor will the other side. You know your story. You just need a few reminders to make sure that you make all of the necessary legal points.

Tip Experienced presenters and attorneys know that it is useful to have the first few sentences written out in full and then to practice these in advance. This will help get you started.

Practice in front of a trusted friend. It may be best to pick a friend who has not heard you talk about your legal issue. It may be helpful to hear the comments of someone who is new to situation. Before you begin, tell your friend what you have to prove (legally). Then ask them to listen only to what you say and what your documents or witnesses can show. Ask them to forget anything else they know about the situation.

Ask them to give you harsh and unbiased feedback. Specifically:

  • Ask them to see if you told or showed them enough to persuade them that your version of the story is the more correct one.
  • Ask them to question you about the areas that they think are weak or unclear.
  • Give your friend a copy of the complaint.

Based on their feedback, are you making assumptions about what the judge might know about your case?

Do you need to provide a better “map” to help the judge follow the legal elements that you need to prove? The judge will be looking for certain information. Make it easy for the judge to see the important parts of your case.

If you are the defendant (person who was sued)…

  • You will speak second. The other side will have laid out a series of facts. You do not have to repeat these facts. Assume that the judge heard and understood the facts, even if you do not like the way the other side said it.

Focus you comments on your defense. Do not dispute every little issue, focus on the most important points. You should have prepared yourself by looking at what the other side had to prove. That will help you determine which points are worth disputing.

Always be polite to the other side.


A special project of the Eastern Shore Regional Library under a Library Services Technology Act grant from the Division of Library Development Services/MD State Department of Education (author: Ayn H. Crawley)


Tips on How to Behave in Court

Lawyers are in court all the time.  It is likely that you will not have spent nearly as much time in a courtroom. Learning appropriate courtroom behavior will help you to fit in and feel more comfortable. Then you can concentrate on presenting your case. 

Note: Small Claims Court is more informal, but respectful behavior is still expected.


  • Turn off your cell phone.
  • Exercise self control, no matter what is said in the court room.
  • Be respectful to the other side whenever you meet them.
  • Speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard by the judge and the opposing side.
  • Ask the questioner to repeat or clarify any questions that you do not understand.
  • Direct your answers to the person who asked the question. Make eye contact with them.
  • Answer questions even if they seem stupid or foolish to you.


  • Chew gum.
  • Argue with the opposing party or his/her attorney.
  • Interrupt anyone.
  • React to the witnesses’ answers or to the questions from the opposing attorney to indicate your displeasure.
  • If you are questioned by the other side, don’t argue with the questioner.
  • Ask questions when it is your turn: “What would you do if…”
  • Give flippant answers.

While you are waiting in the back of the Court Room

  • Do appear to be paying attention. It is helpful to actually listen and learn about the process (and the judge) before your case.
  • Do try to appear pleasant and interested in the proceedings.
  • Do be polite to courtroom staff - the clerk, the bailiff or others. They work with the judge and will report poor behavior.
  • Don't read the newspaper, listen to your iPod, work on your laptop, chew gum, use your cell phone or talk to other people while waiting in the back of the courtroom.
  • Don't make faces or roll your eyes or otherwise show negative reactions to something happening in the court.
  • Don't ignore or treat non-judge members of the court staff poorly. They are part of the justice system that will decide your case.
  • Don't act angry or short-tempered with the judge or other side, even if you are upset by your case.

When Speaking to the Judge

  • Do refer to him/her as "Your Honor" and speak with respect.
  • Don't act angry or short-tempered with the judge, even if you are upset about your case.

How to Dress for Court

Formal dress is not required in the courtroom but it is encouraged that you dress neat and professional.

If you had to come to court directly from work, it would be worth mentioning that. The judge will understand.

Do not wear t-shirts with messages written on them.


A special project of the Eastern Shore Regional Library under a Library Services Technology Act grant from the Division of Library Development Services/MD State Department of Education (author: Ayn H. Crawley)


Tips to Help You Make it Through the Day of the Trial

To be successful, plan to spend significant time preparing your case for trial. This is true whether you are the person who first filed the court case (the plaintiff) or the person who was sued (the defendant).

Before the day of the trial, you should have already:

  • Read the complaint and have taken notes on what it says.
  • If there was a contract or any other written communications between you and the other side on the issues in this case, you have read those documents and made copies.
  • Analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of your argument and the other side’s argument.
  • Identified and collected all relevant documents.
  • Identified and prepared any witnesses who could speak on your behalf.

Now you are ready to plan how to present your case to the judge.

1 – Don’t lie. Don’t exaggerate. Not even a little.

The judge who will hear your case listens to people tell their stories all day, every day. S/he sees all sorts of people – many tell the truth, some “exaggerate,” some lie. Don’t be fooled into thinking that no one can prove you are exaggerating a bit. A judge becomes good at hearing any “false notes” in a story. It is the job of the judge to decide who s/he believes, even if there is no “proof” that one side is lying. The judge is an expert in making these decisions. Don’t jeopardize your case by lying or exaggerating. If you lie on something small, the judge may not believe you when you tell the truth on a key point.

2 – Tell the facts in a logical way. Tell a story.

Judges are people, too. It helps to have the facts presented in a framework that makes it easy to follow. Usually this means telling the facts in chronological order (in the order that they happened). It also means presenting the “headline” first. Just like a newspaper story; start by giving the judge a quick summary at the beginning. For example, you might start with “The defendant has not paid me the $850 that she owes me for a dress that I made for her daughter. Here is what happened…”

3 – Be brief. Know what is important to tell and what is not.

Not everything that happened between you and the other side is legally important. Everyone’s time is limited. Research the law in your case and make sure all of the legal points are addressed in your story. You can ignore all of the parts of the story that are not legally relevant. For example, you may not want to tell the judge that you and the other side ”go way back” or that you babysat her daughter or that she has not paid you for other bills that you did not include in this court case. You can tell a more complete story later if the judge asks you to but start with proving what you need to prove under the law.

4 – Present your evidence in a way that supports your story.

Don’t wait until the end of your story and then shove a bunch of papers at the judge. Organize and label the documents that you want to submit to the court. Put the documents in the order that they support your story. Mention the documents in order. When you mention a fact supported by a document, offer the document to the judge and the other side. Make sure to bring enough copies for both the judge and the other side.

5 – Prepare for the unexpected and remain focused

What is the worst that the other side could say? What are the weakest parts of your case? Prepare for the other side to try to prove these. Don’t wait until after the hearing to say, “I should have said…” First, decide if the worst that the other side can say is legally relevant. If it is just a complaint about you, ignore it. If there is a weakness in your case, prepare by deciding how you will respond when they bring it up. Practice what you would say and ignore the emotions.

6 – Hold on to your original documents unless the judge asks for them.

Only you can keep track of your documents. Your documents are some of the evidence in your case. Evidence could be any documents, such as receipts, photographs, contracts or letters that support your claim. It can be easy to lose documents. You should keep the original documents in your file. Give copies of important documents you plan on using as evidence to the court. Only pass along the original document if the judge requests it. Make sure you have a copy to keep for yourself and for the other side, if needed.


How to Remain Calm When in Court

1 – Prepare for the way that you act when you are nervous.

When I am nervous, I...


...can't stop talking.

I will deal with this potential problem by...

  • Using notes on what I need to say. After my key points, I will put a note to myself that will say STOP.
  • When I see the note, I will stop talking and take at least 2 deep breaths. If someone asks me a question, I will answer. Otherwise, I will wait. "tongue tied."

I will deal with this potential problem by...

  • Writing short reminder notes to myself…not a script.
  • Reviewing my notes in the stall of the bathroom before I go into the court. I will say my first few sentences softly to myself.
  • Reminding myself that this is my story. I know that I am going to say.
  • Practicing my story out loud (in advance) until it is very familiar.

...lose my focus.

I will deal with this potential problem by…

  • Writing up short reminder notes to myself (in advance) about the key points in my story.
  • Going into the bathroom stall at the courthouse and looking at my notes before I go into the courtroom.
  • Looking at my notes periodically. The notes will be brief and written or typed in a big letters. too fast.

I will deal with this potential problem by…

  • Writing a bold note to myself that says SLOW in my presentation notes. I will put this note after my first 2 key points.
  • Forcing myself to stop and breathe after the first 4 sentences whether I need to breathe or not! I will count slowly “one thousand one – one thousand 2” while I am breathing (and no one will notice).
  • Listening to myself. I will stop talking once I have covered all of the issues in my notes.
  • Watching the face of the judge. If s/he looks confused, I will slow down. Maybe say, “I am nervous, can I repeat anything?”

...have a dry mouth.

I will deal with this potential problem by…

  • Arranging to have a drink of water before I go into the court room. (I will bring a water bottle or locate the bathroom or water fountain)
  • Having a single piece of hard candy under my tongue to help lubricate my mouth when I need it. I will be discreet about this.

2 – Know what to expect

Read all of the information about the court on this website.

If at all possible, plan to take time off and go to court. Figure out how to get to the court and what the security arrangements are. You probably will not be able to take your cell phone into the court.

Watch other cases in the court for an hour or so to see what happens. Ideally you should find out when the same judge assigned to your case will be sitting on the bench or the same type of case as yours is being heard. Plan to take notes. Watch carefully to see what works and what the problems are.

3 – Have your papers ready to present

Nothing makes you more nervous than having to sort through your papers to find the one receipt that will prove your case. Eliminate this cause of stress by organizing your documents.

At least 2 days before the hearing, find all of your documents. Make at least 2 copies of each document. Attach the copies to the originals with paper clips. Stack the papers in the order that you plan to mention them in your story. You may even want to number each document. Put them in a file folder and label the file folder. Add your notes. Maybe use a binder clip to hold the documents together and attached to the file. Put the folder by the door or in your car so you do not forget it. You are ready!

4 – Once you are prepared, think about something else. Arrive early.

Once you have done your best to prepare, force yourself to think about something pleasant. Think about your upcoming vacation. Think about your sister’s birthday party. Think about the joke somebody told you yesterday. Thinking about other topics will help you to remain calm. Most importantly, arrive early. Rushing in the door makes everybody (even attorneys) nervous. Make sure that you do not have this extra pressure.


A special project of the Eastern Shore Regional Library under a Library Services Technology Act grant from the Division of Library Development Services/MD State Department of Education (author: Ayn H. Crawley)


Which Court Rules Apply

The details of how the court process will work (called “procedure”) are found in the Maryland Rules.

Different rules apply to different types of cases.

The rules that generally apply to civil cases in Circuit Courts are found in Title 2 of the Maryland Rules. Read the Rules: Maryland Rules, Title 2

The rules that generally apply to civil cases in District Courts are found in Title 3 of the Maryland Rules. Read the Rules: Maryland Rules, Title 3

Small claims and landlord-tenant cases are considered “special proceedings" under the District Court Rules. Certain aspects of these special proceedings have their own rules.

  • You will find the special rules for small claims in Maryland Rule 3-701  The court trial will be much more informal under these special rules. If there is no special rule on a certain issue, then the general rules apply.
  • You will find the special rules for landlord-tenant cases in Maryland Rule 3-711
Edits by Regina Strait, Esq.
Is this legal advice?

This site offers legal information, not legal advice.  We make every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information and to clearly explain your options.  However we do not provide legal advice - the application of the law to your individual circumstances. For legal advice, you should consult an attorney.  The Maryland Thurgood Marshall State Law Library, a court-related agency of the Maryland Judiciary, sponsors this site.  In the absence of file-specific attribution or copyright, the Maryland Thurgood Marshall State Law Library may hold the copyright to parts of this website. You are free to copy the information for your own use or for other non-commercial purposes with the following language “Source: Maryland's People’s Law Library – © Maryland Thurgood Marshall State Law Library, 2020.”