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What to Expect in the Courtroom During a Hearing or Trial

How will I know when to be in court and what do I have to prepare?

Most courts will send you an order, sometimes called a Scheduling Order. It will tell you when you need to be in court and what you must file before the trial. Read this important document carefully. If you do not follow the order, the court could impose sanctions that might include not being allowed to call your witnesses.

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How should I behave in court?

  1. Arrive on time for your hearing or trial. Allow plenty of time to get to the courtroom. If there is not free parking at your local court, make sure you have enough money to park at a meter or use a pay parking lot.
  2. Dress neatly. Shorts, T-shirts, plunging necklines, and torn clothing are not appropriate. You do not have to buy new clothing for court, but remember it is a formal place and you want to be respectful in dress and behavior.
  3. Certain behaviors are not allowed because they are noisy, distracting or disrespectful. You cannot: chew gum, eat, sleep, wear a hat, listen to earphones, text, talk on your phone, take photographs, or carry a weapon.
  4. Treat everyone with respect, including the opposing party, the judge, any witnesses and the court staff. Address the judge as "your honor." Stand when the judge enters or leaves the courtroom. Remove your hat and turn off your cell phone.
  5. Do not interrupt anyone and do not argue with the opposing party. The judge will give each side an opportunity to present their information so wait your turn and you will be able to speak. Talk directly to the judge and not to the opposing party. Speak loudly and clearly into the microphone. Ask the judge for permission to speak if you need to say something and think the judge is moving on to something else.
  6. Bring an outline of what you want to say. As you cover each point, check it off. Before you finish, look back to see if you covered everything. The Judge will only want to hear information that is needed to decide the requests made in the court papers. Practice explaining your request to a friend. If your friend doesn't understand you or find your argument convincing, think about how to improve your presentation.
  7. Bring your records and documents that you want the court to consider so you can refer to them. Bring a notepad and pens for taking notes during the hearing.
  8. Do not bring children. Make arrangements for someone to take care of them.
  9. Control your emotions. It is OK to be upset or cry. However, do not yell, roll your eyes, throw your hands up in despair, pound on the table or storm out of the hearing. If you need a short break to compose yourself, ask the judge for a brief recess.
  10. Before you leave the courtroom, make sure you understand what happens next. Do you need to come back for another court hearing? Do you need to prepare any written documents to file? Do you need to take other steps or actions? Will the Judge send an order by mail? Politely ask questions if you do not understand what will happen next.

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Who are the people in the courtroom?

For many people, the courtroom is an unfamiliar place. We may know generally what happens in court (a judge decides a case), but not how the courtroom works. It helps to look at the roles of the people actually in the courtroom. This diagram outlines the people in a trial and where they sit in the courtroom. Some courtroom designs may vary, but this diagram shows a standard layout.

Diagram showing where people in the courtroom sit.
  1. Judge: The judge makes sure that hearings and trials are conducted according to the law and court rules. The judge sits in the front of the courtroom behind a raised bench that faces the whole courtroom. In civil hearings and trials without juries, the judge decides the issues in the case. The judge is addressed as "Your Honor." The judge wears a black robe when presiding over a hearing or trial in the courtroom. You should stand when the judge enters the courtroom.
  2. In-court clerk: The in-court clerk sits to the side of the judge in his/her own specialized work station. The in-court clerk does several tasks in the courtroom, including checking in the parties when they arrive, announcing the judge when he or she enters the courtroom, swearing in the parties by giving the oath to tell the truth, making an electronic recording of the court proceeding, and writing "log notes" which are a summary of what is said in the proceeding.
  3. Witness: The Plaintiff or Defendant may have people who have first-hand knowledge about issues presented at the trial who will present testimony or discuss an exhibit that is relevant to an issue in the case. Both the Plaintiff and Defendant (or their attorneys if represented) have the opportunity to ask the witnesses questions. The witness sits in a separate area often called the "witness box" which is often located next to the in-court clerk.
  4. Plaintiff: The Plaintiff is the person who filed the case and sits at a table across from the judge's bench and in front of the public seating area. If the Plaintiff is represented by an attorney, the attorney will sit with the Plaintiff. In a civil case, the Plaintiff is a private individual or a corporation who has a dispute with the Defendant. In a criminal case, the Plaintiff is either the State of Alaska or a local government such as a municipality, depending on the type of crime that the Defendant is charged with committing. The prosecutor is the lawyer who represents the government to put on a case to convince the jury that the Defendant is guilty.
  5. Defendant: The Defendant is the person against whom the Plaintiff filed the case. The Defendant sits at a table next to the table where the Plaintiff sits. Both tables are across from the judge's bench and in front of the public seating area. If the Defendant is represented by an attorney, the attorney will sit with the Defendant. In a civil case, the Defendant is a private individual or a corporation who has a dispute with the Plaintiff. In a criminal case, the Defendant is accused of committing a crime.
  6. Jury: If the case has a jury trial, a group of people from the community are randomly selected to serve on the jury to hear the evidence in the case. They sit in assigned seats in an area called the "jury box," which is located to the side of the courtroom so the jurors can see the judge, Plaintiff, Defendant and witness box. In a criminal case, the jurors will decide whether the prosecutor has met their burden of proof to show that the Defendant is guilty of committing a crime. Civil cases often do not have juries and instead are heard only by a judge who will decide the issues. Sometimes, however, there are civil jury trials and the jurors determine which party prevails or wins the case.
  7. Public seating: Most cases are open to the public to watch. Members of the public sit in the back and quietly observe the proceedings.
  8. Podium: There is a podium (raised small table with a microphone to stand behind) located between the tables where the Plaintiff and Defendant sit. The podium may be used by attorneys to question witnesses or by the Plaintiff and Defendant if they are representing themselves. Sometimes the judge may allow everyone to stay seated. If you are representing yourself, it is a good idea to ask the judge if you should stand to question witnesses or present testimony or if it is OK to stay seated.

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What should I expect about the judge?

The judge is neutral and unbiased. This means the judge usually has no expression on his or her face when in court. So don't think the judge is against you or doesn't like you if he or she doesn't smile or nod when you are testifying. Also, the judge may write or type notes about your case or go through your file during the trial or hearing. This may be helpful to understand your case and organize information to make the decision.

You cannot call the judge on the phone or talk to the judge about your case if you see him or her out in the community. All communication with the judge has to be done in court on the record or by filing papers with the court and giving the other side a copy. The judge will send notice to both sides about hearings and trial and will send both sides copies of any orders in the case.

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Can I call the court instead of coming in person?

If you do not live in the community where the case is being heard and can't easily get there, or you have some other problem with getting to court, you may ask the court to appear and testify by telephone. You can file:

If the court grants your motion, it will provide you with information about how to participate by phone. Usually the court will provide you with a phone number to call in to the courtroom. Make sure you are in a quiet location and if possible call from a landline instead of a cell phone.

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Rev. 5 March 2019
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