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: Md 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 are requests for documents and physical or mental examinations of people. Discovery rules for Circuit Court cases are contained in the Maryland Rules, beginning with 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: Md Rule 2-401
Ensuring Access to the Courts
Because your day in court is so important, you should plan ahead to make sure that the courthouse is able to accommodate any needs you might have, which are related to your disability or to the disability of one of your witnesses. 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 probably have 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:
- Be relevant to the case;
- Be reliable; and
- Be authentic.
In order to make sure your evidence meets all 3 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. 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: MD 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. Read the Rules: MD 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.) A 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: MD 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.