After many conversations with clients over the years, I discovered that not only the law is a mystery to most people, but so is courtroom procedure in family court. Most people’s expectation about what happens in court is skewed by watching television or movies. Television often only has snippets of the procedure, and often those snippets are wrong.
Here’s an outline for you fo what happens in the usual family court case. Each outline I give to a client is specific to his or her case and is much, much longer than what you see below, but this will give you an idea what to expect as a case is presented and goes forward:
- Calendar Call – I will meet you outside of the courtroom at 8:45. The judge will call the calendar at 9. I will be there for you so don’t worry about standing up and saying anything. I will take care of that. the judge will tell us when he can reach our case.
- Opening Statements – This is where I will tell the judge what the evidence is expected to show, why we are here, and what we want to accomplish in the hearing.
- Evidence – Each side put on their evidence. The other lawyer will call witnesses and I get to ask their witnesses questions. I will call witnesses, ask questions, and present documents. (Usually I will have written questions or an outline that the client and I have worked on detailing what each witness is likely to say, what we will ask, etc.) Usually either the party filing the lawsuit first (the plaintiff) will put on evidence first, but sometimes if it is a motion hearing then the party who filed the motion will get to put on evidence first.
- Closing Argument – this is where I will argue that the court should make certain findings and rule in a certain way.
Every family law case is different. The evidence in a case about equitable distribution will be very different than evidence in a child custody case. However, the basic outline above can be modified and expanded to fit the needs of each case. I find that my clients appreciate knowing what to expect and that I am prepared for their case and that basic courtroom procedure does not really change from case-to-case.
There is much more to know about courtroom procedure than what I have outlined above. For example, in North Carolina you must ask witnesses questions while seated and you must ask the court to approach the witnesses. However, these kinds of things are for your lawyer to worry about. As a party in a courtroom your focus should be on presenting a calm demeanor, telling the truth, and making sure you put you best case forward.