What to Expect at a Family Law Trial
If your family law case is contested, the court may order the matter set for trial. This guide provides an introduction to what happens at a family law trial.
Opening StatementsThe first stage of the trial is the opening statement. Each party may give an opening statement. The most persuasive opening statements are brief, 1-5 minutes in length, and include a "roadmap" of the evidence in the case. The "roadmap" is a summary of the evidence, not an in-depth analysis of it.
Attorneys skilled in trial advocacy will use this portion of the trial to weave in a unifying theme that they will use throughout the case. An effective theme is based on the evidence supporting the case, rather than playing to emotions or making personal attacks on the other side. For example, an opening statement that characterizes one party as a "cheater" has little effect on the case in a no-fault divorce state.
The most persuasive opening statements focus on key evidence that supports the client's position, rather than a purely emotional argument.
Presenting Evidence to the CourtThe party who initially requested the court hearing has the first opportunity to present information to the judge. After their turn, the other party presents their evidence. This information (evidence) is typically in the form of witnesses testifying, or in the form of exhibits.
Witness testimony involves both direct and cross-examination. During witness testimony the opposing party or their attorney has the right to object to certain kinds of questions asked of the witness. There are numerous bases for objections, and experienced trial attorneys know them by heart. An experienced trial attorney will listen carefully to the questions asked and the answers given, and look for opportunities to object, which in turn limits the evidence obtained in response to that question.
Similarly, an experienced trial attorney will phrase their direct and cross-examination questions carefully to avoid a dispute with the opposing party or attorney, in order to get as much evidence into the record as possible.
In addition to witness testimony, parties may move exhibits into evidence. Just like direct and cross-examination of witnesses, this requires a keen understanding of the laws of evidence. For example, exhibits are typically "moved" into evidence with a very specific process. Failure to properly move the document into evidence can mean the information does not get considered by the court.
Closing StatementsAs with the opening statement, the closing statement is a brief opportunity to give the court the summary of the evidence supporting your case. Unlike an opening statement, however, before you give the closing statement you have the opportunity to call to the court's attention deficiencies in the opposing side's case that you learned during trial. Trial attorneys are experienced in quickly amending their closing statement to rebut evidence presented during trial.
Again, the purpose of a closing argument is to summarize rather than give a detailed accounting of the evidence supporting the case. A persuasive closing argument summarizes the most persuasive evidence supporting your case, and is brief, lasting only 1-5 minutes.
Pre-Trial ConsiderationsPreparing for trial is a significant undertaking for an attorney, let alone a party representing themselves. In preparing for trial, pay close attention to the rules of court, including California Rules of Court and local rules applicable to your jurisdiction. By way of example, some jurisdictions require a trial brief to be submitted before the hearing. There are also meet and confer requirements applicable in most jurisdiction before trial.
Additionally, in advance of trial you should consider what discovery, if any, needs to be conducted to learn information and facts you can use to support your case.
Finally, if you would like to call a witness to support your case, other than yourself, you need to subpoena that witness. A subpoena typically requires personal service, rather than service by mail. Failure to properly subpoena a witness can mean that person does not show up at your hearing.
Tips to Choose the Right Attorney for Your TrialHiring an attorney to represent you can be a significant investment, so it is prudent to ensure you have the right attorney for your case. Make sure your attorney reasonably has enough time to prepare adequately for trial. Be weary of attorneys who do not have actual trial experience because the fast-paced and dynamic nature of the trial (not to mention high stakes for your case) is not something all attorneys are skilled at handling effectively.
Style ConsiderationsIn addition to having polished arguments and being prepared to examine witnesses, be sure to look credible and professional before the court. Do not wear street clothes. Instead, dress in business attire. That includes dress pants and a dress shirt, a knee-length or longer skirt and a dress shirt/blouse, a conservative dress with a jacket or sweater, and other forms of conservative attire. Dressing conservatively ensures that the court is paying attention to your case, rather than some unrelated aspect about you. Although judges strive to be impartial, a distracting outfit can detract from the persuasive message about your case that you want to convey.