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.
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 
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.)
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 the date is rescheduled, the other side must be notified again.
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: Md 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.
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
Once you have looked at the legal elements that you must prove, think about whether there are any witnesses. A good witness will:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t wear t-shirts with messages.
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).
What you should do before the day of the trial:
Now you are ready to plan how to present your case to the judge.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
|When I am nervous, I...||I will deal with this potential problem by...|
|...can't stop talking.||
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.
|...am "tongue tied."||
Writing short reminder notes to myself…not a script.
|...lose my focus.||
I will deal with this potential problem by …
|...talk too fast.||
I will deal with this potential problem by …
|...have a dry mouth.||
I will deal with this potential problem by …
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.
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!
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.
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: Md 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: Md 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.