Appearing in Court Without a Lawyer: A Guide for Pro Se Litigants
Having to appear in court can be a stressful and even frightening experience, especially for those appearing without an attorney. This Guide will attempt to answer some of the more common questions and, hopefully, ease some of the stress associated with your appearance in court.
The decision to appear in court without a lawyer is important and should be carefully considered. The sole purpose of this is to provide general information about the courthouse process. This should not be considered as legal advice about whether you should have a lawyer for your case or how to represent yourself in court.
Where is the court located?
The courthouse for Prince William County, the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, and the towns of Dumfries, Triangle, Quantico and Haymarket is located at 9311 Lee Avenue in Manassas. Your summons, warrant or subpoena will indicate which of the three courts you have to appear in. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court is located on the first floor of the courthouse; the General District Court is on the second; and the Circuit Court is on the third.
When should I arrive?
You should check your summons, warrant or subpoena for the appointed time for your case, but allow extra time for parking, clearance through courthouse security and finding the right courtroom. If in doubt, allowing an extra hour should ordinarily be sufficient.
What should I wear?
The Judge and the court itself are entitled to be treated with respect. You should dress for your court appearance as you would for any other important meeting or engagement. Never come to court in shorts, cut-offs, tee shirts, tank tops, or in anything having disrespectful or insulting pictures or words.
Who should come with me?
If you are a party to a case (as opposed to a witness), you should bring any witnesses for your case. Otherwise, you may wish to bring a close friend or family member for moral support and encouragement. Anyone coming with you to court should dress nicely, just as you have done.
What things should I bring to court?
If you are a party to the case, you should bring any letters, contracts, photographs or other documents that you feel the Judge needs to see to make a decision about your case. If you have been subpoenaed to appear as a witness, be sure to review the subpoena to see if it directed you to bring any documents with you to court
Are there things I should not bring to court?
Because of security concerns, cell phones, liquids, aerosols and weapons of any kind are not allowed in the courthouse. Leave these items at home or in your car. Attempting to bring them into the courthouse will delay or prohibit your entry. If there are photographs or text messages on your cell phone that you feel the Judge should see, bring your phone but leave it in your car. When your case is called in court tell the Judge that your phone contains photographs or text messages that are relevant to the case. The Judge may then allow you to retrieve your phone from your car and check it with a courthouse security officer who will deliver it to the courtroom.
Where do I go when I get to the courthouse?
Upon entering the courthouse, you will pass through a security check much like in an airport. Then go to the floor for the court in which your case is assigned. A list of the cases to be heard that day will be posted on a bulletin board in the hallway. Look for your name, or the names of the parties to the case if you are a witness. You should see the courtroom number to which the case is assigned. If you cannot find your case or the right courtroom, go to the information desk or the clerk’s office and show the attendant your warrant, summons or subpoena. He or she can direct you to the proper courtroom. Unless directed otherwise, you should be seated inside the assigned courtroom at the time shown on the warrant, summons or subpoena.
What do I do when my case is called?
Stand and answer “present” or “here” so the Judge knows you are present in the courtroom. The Judge may ask you to come forward then or to wait for other matters to be heard. When directed by the Judge, you should come forward to the podium or to one of the tables at the front of the courtroom as directed by the Judge or the courtroom deputy. Remain standing until you are directed to take a seat. Do not approach the bench where the Judge sits unless directed by the Judge.
Will I have to speak? Can I ask questions?
First and foremost – listen. The Judge will tell you why you have been asked to appear in court. You may or may not have to say anything. In most cases, you will have a chance to ask questions before you leave. Do not, however, interrupt the Judge or argue with him or her. Remember to treat the Judge with respect and courtesy and wait your turn to talk or ask questions.
What can I do if I disagree with the Judge’s decision?
In some - but not all - cases, you may have a right to appeal the Judge’s decision to a higher court. If there is a right to an appeal, there will be very specific time limits and strict procedures to be followed. You may be able to obtain some limited information on your appeal rights from the clerk’s office. However, because appeals can be quite complicated, you should seriously consider hiring an attorney immediately if you think you might want to appeal your case.
Where can I go for help? What help can the clerk’s office give me?
The court clerks are prohibited from giving legal advice. They may be able to answer some basic questions about where to file papers, the number of copies required and dates for court appearances. Otherwise, you should consult with an attorney if you at any time feel unsure about what to do to protect your rights and interests.
The court can only appoint you a lawyer for a criminal charge that carries the potential for jail time and then, only if you meet state financial guidelines. If you have a question about whether you are entitled to a court appointed attorney, ask the Judge when your case is called.
Refer to the other pages in this section of the site for help with finding an attorney.