You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
In court, you typically get only one chance to make any impression at all, so it is important that you make it count. Be punctual for all court appearances. Nothing spoils an impression like not showing up to make it. You should take extra care to determine when your case is scheduled, and exactly where it is to be heard. Many courthouses have multiple courtrooms, and some of the more historic courthouses can feel like a maze to the infrequent visitor. If you don't know exactly what time or where your case is scheduled, call the clerk in advance and ask. On the day of trial, arrive at least fifteen minutes before your case is set to be heard. If you're not there on time, you run the risk that your case will either be dismissed or decided against you in your absence. Even if your tardiness results in a mere continuance, you will have likely annoyed the judge from the very beginning, which ordinarily does not put you in a strong position going forward.
Speak now or forever hold your peace.
One of the most common mistakes made by pro se parties is failing to tell the judge what he/she is asking the judge to do. Generally speaking, a judge cannot award relief that is not requested by one of the parties. While asking alone does not guarantee receiving, failing to ask almost always guarantees not receiving. The judge cannot, and will not, attempt to read your mind, so you should be prepared to state clearly and concisely exactly what it is you want the judge to do and why you think he or she should do it. Do not assume that anything about your case is self-explanatory or obvious to the judge. Be direct and be specific in your request.
Honesty is the best policy.
There are no such things as "little white lies" in a court of law. A single misrepresentation or dishonest statement can destroy your credibility with the judge, and thus, your case. Whether answering questions from the judge or opposing counsel, making statements to the judge during the opening or closing portion of your case, or even discussing scheduling or procedural matters with the clerk, you must remain honest. While you can and should attempt to present the facts so that they fit favorably into the picture you want the judge to see, you should not attempt to alter them. If the judge learns that you lied in just one statement or misrepresented just one fact, he or she can (and often will) view every other statement you make with heightened skepticism. Not only do you chance destroying your case, but you expose yourself to a potential contempt of court or perjury charge.
You attract more flies with honey.
It is critical that you treat the judge, court personnel, opposing counsel, and any witnesses you question with respect. Despite what you may have seen on television, effective advocacy does not depend on boisterous, overly-animated, or bullying conduct. Sarcasm and aggressive posturing often make it more difficult to get the answers you need from witnesses, and almost always detract from your argument to the judge. At the most basic level, you are trying to convince the judge that you deserve some form of relief, and that without it, you will be somehow wronged in the eyes of the law. Judges typically struggle to accept such a position from someone they view as overly-aggressive or disrespectful.
Ignorance is rarely bliss.
The Virginia Supreme Court has expressly held that "self-representation is not a license to fail to comply with the relevant rules of procedural and substantive law." While judges will occasionally grant a pro se party some latitude, you should assume that you will be held to the same procedural and substantive laws as any attorney. While you will not have time to gain the same proficiency and expertise that a competent attorney would provide, you should, at a minimum, take some time to research the basic legal standard that will be used to decide your case, as well as any deadlines or other procedural requirements that must be followed. A handful of helpful sources, including state-maintained websites and attorney-generated information websites can be found through a basic internet search and accessed at no charge.
A little advice can go a long way.
Substantive legal analysis and courtroom presentation are special skills developed through extensive education as well as courtroom experience. While pro se parties are occasionally able to achieve the same end result as a skilled attorney would have, the general wisdom is that pro se parties are at a disadvantage in the courtroom, especially when the opposing party is represented by an attorney. You should consider hiring an attorney for advice on preparing your case, even if you are determined to represent yourself at trial. Because trial preparation costs often increase significantly as the trial date approaches, some attorneys will agree to charge a lower retainer or initial deposit if the client seeks only pretrial advice rather than actual representation in court on the day of trial.
Know your limits.
Most orders entered by the general district and juvenile courts are appealable to the circuit court in the same locality. Appeals from a lower court are tried in circuit court as if the prior trial never happened, effectively giving either party a second chance to litigate the case. However, an appeal from a final order of a circuit court is to either the Virginia Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court of Virginia, either of which is extremely expensive, tedious, and difficult without the assistance of an attorney. Thus, self-representation is less of a risk in the lower courts, where a bad result can be potentially erased with a new trial in the circuit court. A common strategy for saving costs is to proceed pro se in the lower court, and if an appeal is taken to the circuit court, to then hire counsel. However, if your case is already pending in circuit court, you should strongly consider retaining an attorney at the outset.
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