Tips and Common Mistakes in Legal Matters
Tips to Help in Utah Court
1. Always prepare before a hearing.
Prepare by having drafted and filed a memorandum of what you are going to argue in court. Prepare by having an outline of things to talk about at the hearing. Prepare by learning the other party's argument and creating a counter-argument. Prepare by practicing your argument BEFORE you have to do it for real.
2. Drafting documents for the court.
If you are attending a hearing, such as temporary orders, where the judge will make a substantive ruling on your case, you will want to give the judge an opportunity to see what you are asking for BEFORE you go to court so that the judge can adequately prepare him or herself. Never go into a hearing with the assumption that the judge will understand your case and get it right. The judge may or may not be familiar with the facts of your case. And just as you probably have a hard time processing a large amount of information in a short period of time, judges have those difficulties also. Nobody likes surprises in court - especially your judge. Don't do that to them and then wonder why they didn't rule on your behalf.
3. Bring an outline of your argument to court.
It's a medical fact that people's mind function worse off during stress. Court is stressful and therefore makes a great place to experience first hand what it's like to forget what you wanted to say when you needed to say it. If you bring an outline, most courts will allow you to glance at it to refresh your memory of what you wanted to talk about. Take advantage of that.
4. Prepare a counter-argument.
Very rarely is anyone's case a slam dunk. The other side will almost always have some basis of a reasonable argument to make against your own side. Understanding their position is the first step to defeating their position. Once you understand their justifications, you can better counter their arguments and convince a judge you were right... No idea what the other party's argument will be because they haven't filed any documentation explaining their argument? A little bit frustrating, right? That's pretty much how the judge will feel too. (See tip #2).
5. Practice your argument before the hearing.
As explained in tip #3, people get stressed out in court. If you have practiced your arguments, you will likely do a much better job making them when it matters.
6. Keep your arguments under 10 minutes (and 10 pages - or less if the rules require less).
Judges are busy. They usually have many cases on their calendar. Therefore, if you spend time rambling and repeating yourself, the judge might start to lose interest. Additionally, you might be given a hard time limit and be shut down before being able to say all that you needed. Just plan that in most hearings you will have only one chance to talk (two at most) and that you need to get it all out within 10 to 15 minutes.
7. Focus on the most important parts of your argument.
There is little doubt you have a lot to tell the court. However, the judge isn't going to want to hear your life story - and if you go that route, don't be surprised if you run out of time to explain the facts that will have an actual impact on your case. Therefore, figure out what needs to be said and say it.
8. Make sure every word you say / write has purpose.
As mentioned above, rambling and repeating yourself is bad. As you write out your arguments and practice saying them, ask yourself how each statement you make will help you get closer to winning your case. If a particular statement doesn't help, leave it out. If it only helps a little, then don't spend much time on it. However, if it provides good context for an important fact, then go ahead and spend time on it.
9. Bring evidence with you (better yet, file it with the court beforehand).
Judges hate making rulings without any justification. Sometimes they just have to make the best guesses that they can because no one provided any evidence for what they said. When that happens, they often "split the baby" and make a bad ruling. If you don't want that to happen to you, provide documentation that supports your position. Collect text messages, emails, and pictures that prove you are telling the truth. If you can, print off your written evidence or bring color photos. If you have video evidence, bring a laptop to court and burn a copy of the video onto CD or DVD. Ask witnesses to write an affidavit for you (and have them show up to court - even if it's unlikely they will have to testify). If the other side brought evidence, and you didn't, who do you think the court is going to rule for?
10. Dress and act appropriately.
Court is a big deal. Dress and act like it is serious. If you don't, the court may make an assumption that you really don't care about your case and be more likely to rule against you.
11. Read the "Bench Books" that judges provide.
Here is something many attorneys don't even do, but that they really should. Bench books are guides written by the judges which give the attorneys / parties an idea of what they want to hear and what their expectations are in court. Experienced attorneys can often wing their way though because of their expertise. Litigants with no legal experience would be wise to prepare in any way possible before their hearing. Here is a link to where you can find these bench books: http://litigation.utahbar.org/benchbooks.html
Common Mistakes People Make in Utah Court
1. Not knowing what facts that the judge wants to know about.
Oftentimes, not always, judges have a pretty good idea what the law says on an issue. However, in order to know how to apply the law, they need to know the relevant facts to apply. For instance, if you want a court to find that your spouse is intentionally not working to avoid paying a fair amount of child support, you will probably want to talk about your spouses work history, earnings history, medical history and educational history. If you don't bring up those facts then the court will probably not have any basis to find on your behalf. Knowing what facts are important will oftentimes require researching the laws. Not knowing what to focus on can also really hurt you when you tell the judge something you thought was helpful, but actually causes you to lose your case - and this actually happens quite a bit.
2. Not filing anything and not being prepared.
When this happens, it is painfully obvious. If one side is prepared and the other side isn't, the prepared side will control what questions are asked and what facts are presented. Good people often lose good cases simply because they were unable to convey the relevant facts to the court. Being unprepared makes this a likely scenario for anyone.
3. Not respecting time limits and interrupting people.
Judges like structure in their courtrooms. Without it, they would never be able to finish their calendars and everyone would have to stay late every day. When it's your turn to talk, then talk. When it's the other person's time to talk, listen and take notes - and then respond when it's appropriate. When you interrupt the other party without good cause (like a valid objection) the judge will get angry with you... and could potentially hold you in contempt of court.
4. Arguing with the judge.
Judges are good people just trying to do their best at making rulings that conform to the laws of the state. Telling the judge they are wrong (without providing some justification) will probably just get the judge mad. And you really don't want a passive-aggressive judge ruling against you.
5. Being rude to court personnel.
What's worse than insulting a judge? Being rude to their court personnel. A judge can defend themselves - and many will let a lot slide because they have thick skin. Be rude to the clerks and bailiffs though and they will let you have it. People in the court talk to each other and are friends with each other. Don't put yourself in a hole before your hearing even starts by being rude to people in the courthouse.
6. Making frivolous arguments and false / outrageous statements.
If you have a close case on a particular issue (the facts are shaky and a judge could rule either way), you will want to have built some credibility with the court. Making ridiculous arguments and statements will kill your credibility. And if one party has credibility and the other does not, whose word do you think the judge will believe in a close case?
Having watched and participated in numerous proceedings that involved parties representing themselves, we have been subject to a number of cringe worthy moments where you just wish you could step in and help that person from falling flat on their face. This page is dedicated to helping those of you who have read this far to avoid one of those unfortunate moments. These are only a handful of the things you can do to help your case and utilizing these tips won't guarantee success, but they will certainly improve your odds.