In general, it is a good idea to have a lawyer to represent you. But, it is not always necessary or possible. When you don't have a lawyer, you are representing yourself and acting as your own lawyer.
Going to Court
You may not need a lawyer if . . .
- Your case is straightforward and you and the other side are in agreement about everything (like a divorce where you both agree how to split everything, or a child custody and visitation case where you agree on a parenting plan)
- You understand all your options and can make informed decisions about your case.
- You are willing to learn, understand, and follow the law and all the rules and procedures that apply to your case.
- You have the time to work on and prepare your case.
- You can follow instructions and can work on your own.
You may need a lawyer if . . .
- You have a complicated case or a case that may become complicated, like a divorce case with pension plans or a lot of property to be divided.
- You want legal advice.
- You want to discuss strategies, like where is best to file, whether to respond, and other decisions that will come up as you go along.
- You want a confidential attorney-client relationship.
- If you need help with presenting your case or with understanding the laws or the rules and procedures that apply to your case.
If you decide to represent yourself, keep in mind:
- Not being a lawyer and not knowing the law is NOT an excuse for not following court procedures or filing the wrong papers.
- You are responsible for filling out all the necessary forms, filing the forms with the court, and presenting your case to the judge.
- You have to keep track of all deadlines, like deadlines for filing papers, serving the other side, and others. The court will not keep track for you.
- You should be realistic about what the judge can and cannot do. Make sure you understand the limits of what the court can order.
- If you lose because you are unable to follow all the procedures or meet all the technical ways to prove your case, the judge might order you to pay the other side's costs or attorney's fees.
Check out our Additional Resources and Help to find a lawyer or other help with your legal issue.
- Read about how courts work and about the law that applies to your case. Review additional information on this site or ask the Self-Help Center / Family Law Facilitator if it is a type of case they can help you with. If not, do your research:
- Read Finding and Using the Law that Applies to Your Case. (California Courts website)
- Watch: So, You're Thinking of Filing a Lawsuit?
- Watch: I have a Case in Court, Now What?
- Look at options to solve your problem without having to go to court. For example, you can try Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), like mediation or arbitration.
- Learn more below on how to Resolve Your Dispute Out of Court.
- Once you decide to file a case, follow all court procedures. To do this, look at:
- Keep track of all deadlines, especially deadlines for filing papers and serving the other side. If you miss these deadlines, your case may be delayed, or worse, you may lose your case.
- Find out more about the deadline for filing different types of cases, called the statute of limitations. (California Courts website)
- You can find the deadlines for serving papers in the Code of Civil Procedure. It usually depends on what type of case you have and what type of papers you are serving. For the cases we talk about on this website, we give you the deadlines for serving your papers.
- Complete and file your papers in court.
- Serve (give) court papers in the right legal way.
- Click to learn the different types of service and who to serve in different types of cases. (California Courts website)
- Learn how to serve your spouse or domestic partner in a divorce by posting or publication when you cannot find them. (California Courts website)
- Get tips on how to find someone in order to serve them. (California Courts website)
- Gather evidence to help you prove your case. This is called discovery. During discovery, you can:
- Collect facts,
- Get witness statements,
- Find out what the other side is going to say, and
- Get all the important information you need to present your case in court.
Discovery can be very expensive and time-consuming. In most civil cases, the costs of discovery make up almost all the costs. It takes a lot of time for lawyers and their staffs to write up questions, review the responses, and argue in court about whether the other side did not respond to everything they should have. And it takes a lot of time to ask for, collect, and review the sometimes thousands of documents that may be involved in a case.
Discovery can be informal, and you may be able to handle that part on your own, like getting witness statements, police reports, taking pictures, etc. But it may also be formal, with things like depositions, interrogatories, and more. If you are involved in a civil case and you have to do formal discovery, it may be a good idea to hire a lawyer to help you.
Read more about Discovery on the California Courts website.
- Watch videos about the different types of discovery on the Sacramento Law Library's video page (click on "Discovery" on the left-hand side of the page to find the videos).
- Before your court date, go to the courtroom where your hearing will be and watch some cases. You can learn a lot by watching other cases.
- Be prepared for your court hearing.
- Review all the court papers. Understand what you and the other side are asking for and what you need to prove.
- Prepare your evidence. Have copies of:
- All the papers you filed
- All the papers the other side served you
- Anything you haven't served the other side but want to use in court.
- Label your exhibits -- like photos, letters, or other documents you want to show the court (Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, etc.).
- Read more about Going to Court.
- Go to court.
- Dress neatly and respectfully.
- Be on time. Allow extra time for traffic or other possible delays. (If you are delayed or unable to attend the hearing due to a car breakdown, sudden illness, or other emergency, contact the department clerk (as well as the other party if allowed) on or before your hearing time.)
- Speak clearly and loud enough that the judge can hear you. Speak only when it is your turn.
- When you speak to the judge, act respectfully and call him or her "your honor." Be sure never to interrupt the judge.
- Answer all of the judge's questions and stop talking immediately if the judge interrupts you.
- If you don't understand something, say that you don't understand. Someone will try to explain it to you.
- After the hearing, follow all the orders the judge made.
Going to Court
Before you file a lawsuit in court, you should always consider whether you can resolve your dispute out of court. These alternatives are called "alternative dispute resolution" or "ADR" for short.
- If you already have an agreement in your case and do not want to go to court, you can usually write up your agreement, have a judge sign it, and file it with the court. If you have an agreement in a family law case and want information to write it up, go to the Family Law Facilitator.
Using ADR to resolve your disputes without going to court can:
- Save you time, since it can take a lot less time to work out and write up an agreement than go through a trial, which can take a year or more.
- Save you money, since you can save money on attorney's fees, court costs and fees, fees for expert witnesses and other expenses. Also, because you finish your case sooner and do not have to go to court, you avoid having to take off from work.
- Give you more control over the case and the outcome. In ADR, you actively participate in creating a good solution rather than if you go to court and leave the decision up to a judge or a jury. Also, you can create solutions that go beyond what the court can do and that address your situation and your dispute better.
Get Help and Information about ADR
- Check out the San Mateo Court's Appropriate Dispute Resolution Programs or call:
- (650) 261-5075 or
- (650) 261-5076
- Watch the "Resolve Your Case" videos about: