Before getting started, review the considerations listed in the Basics of Starting Your Case article.
- If you’re looking for information about how to start the lawsuit, review How to File a Case.
- If you’re just getting started with responding to a case, review How to Respond to Case.
Below are some essential steps for preparing your case. Depending on your matter, there may be additional considerations, but this basic list will help you get started.
- Stay up to date with your case.
- Find out your trial schedule.
- Read the complaint.
- Figure out which court rules apply.
- Identify and locate your evidence.
- Prepare your documents for trial.
- Find out more facts: use the discovery process.
- Identify and prepare any witnesses.
- Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
- Ensure access to the courts.
- Prepare for what happens if the other side does not show up.
- Prepare to present your case to the court.
- Prepare for after the trial.
Stay Up to Date with Your Case.
Between the time that you file the complaint and the actual hearing date, many things can happen. It’s important to stay up to date with your case.
- Read and respond to all court documents and notices. Don't postpone answering notices from the court. Answer immediately.
- Check your case online through the Maryland Judiciary Case Search, but be aware that not everything may be available online or updated instantly.
- Call the Clerk's office for updates or other information on your case. Have your name, the opposing party’s name, and the case number ready.
- Keep the court informed of any changes in your contact information.
- Don't email or fax documents to the court. Generally, your options are to file the documents in person, mail the documents, or electronically file if you have signed up for the Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC).
- Do not call or contact the judge directly. Learn more about how to make a request to a judge.
Find Out Your Trial Schedule
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 is 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 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. Pre-trial statements or orders outline the topics discussed and the rules to follow after the 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.
Read the Complaint.
Whether you are the person who filed the case (the “plaintiff”) or the person being sued (the “defendant”), read and reread the complaint. This is the document that the judge will have in front of them. The judge will be looking for an explanation of all the items in the complaint. You must prove (or disprove, if you are the defendant) what was alleged in the complaint.
While reading the complaint, ask yourself:
- Does the complaint tell all the key elements of the story?
- 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, etc.?
Figure out which court rules apply.
Different court rules apply to different types of cases and different courts (e.g., small claims, District Court, circuit court). The rules are much more formal outside of small claims court, and the advice or representation of an attorney is likely to be very helpful. The details of how the court process will work (“court procedure”) are found in the Maryland Rules. Learn more about court rules.
Identify and locate your evidence.
Identify and prepare the important documents and physical evidence that you plan to bring to trial. Your evidence must be:
- relevant to the case;
- reliable; and
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). Learn more about contracts.
- Look at any 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 any insight into the argument that the other side will make? If so, how can you prepare to counter these arguments?
Vital Records - If you do not have copies of vital records, then learn more about finding vital records.
Serve Certain Documents - If you plan on using certain documents (such as certified business records) for court, you will need to send a copy to the other side. Do this well in advance of the court date. Learn more about service of process.
Prepare Your Documents for Trial.
Organized documents will help you be calm in court. You cannot be too organized.
Collect all documents relating to the case. This can include any written contracts, correspondence, estimates for repairs or replacements, warranties, canceled checks, photographs, and any other similar materials that you may want to show the judge and enter into evidence.
Copies - 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, prepare copies for each party.
- Keep extra copies of all pleadings, letters to the judges, and anything dealing with the case.
- 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.
Original Documents - Do not give any original documents to the judge or the other party unless the judge specifically asks you to do so.
Organize your documents.
- 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.
- If there are costs related to your claim or if the amount of damages is in dispute, itemize the estimates and the costs.
- 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 the documents on the floor. Will you quickly be able to reorganize it?
- Create a trial notebook. Put the documents in the same order that you expect to use them to support your side of the story. Another option to put the documents in chronological order.
Find out more facts: use the discovery process.
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. Learn more about interrogatories in District Court.
NOTE: If you are in Small Claims Court, then you cannot use discovery to get information about the other side.
Circuit Court rules for discovery are much more complex than in District Court. The parties also have other procedures available in addition to interrogatories. Learn more about circuit court discovery.
The other side may also use the discovery process. Don’t ignore their discovery requests.
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:
- can support a key point in your case;
- has “firsthand” knowledge of that key point;
- does not have a reason to lie about the situation;
- has the correct expertise if they are an expert witness; and
- can and will 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. Don't waste time on bringing a witness to prove a minor point.
The witness should have personal knowledge of whatever they are testifying about. This means they have seen, heard, or otherwise experienced whatever you want the witness to prove. Do not 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. Consider whether you need an expert witness (note that you may have to pay an expert witness for spending time in court).
If there is someone you believe can provide essential information, and that person is unwilling to appear in court, you may need to compel your witness to attend the hearing. It may be a good idea to get a subpoeana even if the witness is willing. Learn more about subpoeanas. You might also consider whether that person would be willing to provide a written, signed statement.
Confirm that all witnesses will attend and know the correct time and place for the trial.
Also, don’t forget that you are your own witness as well.
Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
If you are the plaintiff, review what you must prove 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.
- If the other side was harmed and it was your fault, consider whether the amount that the other side is requesting is incorrect or unfair.
- Was there anything that the plaintiff did to contribute to what happened? Is the extent of the damage partly due to failures of the other side to try and limit the damages?
Be honest with yourself. If the plaintiff cannot prove all the elements of the case, then the plaintiff will lose. The plaintiff has the burden of proof. This means that it’s the plaintiff’s job to prove their case. 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. Learn more about proving a fact and proving damages.
Understand how the judge will decide your case.
- 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.
Ensure 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. Learn more about accommodations and accessibility in the Maryland Courts.
If you or one of your witnesses does not speak English, the court will provide interpreter services, but you generally must request that ahead of time. Learn more about requesting a court interpreter.
Prepare for what to do if the other side doesn’t show up.
The other side might not show up. That does not mean you automatically win.
If you are the plaintiff and 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. Even if the other side does not show, you must still prove your damages and that the other side was at fault.
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. The defendant has the right to attend that hearing as well.
If you are the defendant, and the other side doesn’t show up. Ask the judge to dismiss the case.
Prepare to present your case.
You have prepared your case. The content is ready. Now think about how you are going to present that information to the judge. Learn about presenting your case to the court and courtroom behavior.
Prepare for after the trial.
Whether you win or lose, there are likely going to be steps you will need to take after the trial.
- If you win, the next step will be to collect the amount ordered by the judge or to enforce the judge’s decision. Learn more about collecting the judgment.
- If you lose or disagree with the judgment, you may have several options available. Learn more about your options for responding to judgments.