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What happens when I go to court?

Produced by Mariah Jennings-Rampsi, South Coastal Counties Legal Services, with funding from American College of Bankruptcy Foundation
Reviewed December 2019

Knowing why you are at court

You may have to go to court several times for different reasons.  You may be at court for:

  • a pre-trial conference,
  • a case management conference,
  • a trial or for
  • a supplementary process hearing. 

To find out what will happen in court the day you are going, and how far along you are in your case, look at the notice you get that tells you to go to court. 

  1. At a case management conference the court decides if your case can be settled before trial. You may go in front of a mediator, a magistrate or the judge.

    If you and the plaintiff can come to an agreement at the case management conference, it is called “settling”. If you settle, you do not need to go to trial.

    The plaintiff may offer to stop suing you if sign a statement that says you owe a certain amount of money; either the amount the plaintiff is suing you for or a smaller amount.

    If you think you owe less than the plaintiff is asking for, ask the plaintiff to “settle” for the amount you think is correct.

  2. At a pre-trial conference the court is still trying to figure out if you can settle your case. But the court is also planning for the trial. The court needs to know:
    1. how many witnesses you will have,
    2. how long the trial will take.
  3. At the trial you will go before the judge. The plaintiff will present their case. The plaintiff will try to prove that you owe them money. Explain to the judge why you do not owe the money. Show the judge the proof you have that disproves the plaintiff’s case.

    If you filed counterclaims in your answer, you are the plaintiff for those claims. You will need to “present your case” for each counterclaim. You must present evidence for your counterclaims and give the judge proof that you should win those claims. You can find books on presenting your case at trial at your local law library.

  4. At a supplementary process hearing the court has already decided that you owe the plaintiff money.  This hearing is to decide how you have to pay the plaintiff back.  This could be through selling your assets or taking money from your bank account or paycheck.

At the court house

Every court house is set up differently, but there are always several court rooms and a civil clerk’s office. You can ask questions at the civil clerk’s office if you are not sure where you are supposed to go. 

  1. When you first get to court, you need to find out which courtrooms you should be in. Look for the lists of names outside the courtrooms or ask at the clerk’s office.
  2. Look for your name on the list and write down the number. The cases are usually called in order.
  3. After you enter the courtroom let the clerk know if you need an interpreter. The clerk is sitting in the front of the room. Check in with the clerk.Tell them you are there.
  4. Listen for your case to be called.


The plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney may call out your name. The Plaintiff may call your name to try to negotiate an agreement with you. You do not have to talk with the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney if you do not want to.

If you are confused whether the person calling your name is the plaintiff or the court clerk, ask.

The plaintiff may want you to sign an agreement that says you agree you owe the money. It may say that you agree to repay a small portion each month to the plaintiff.

Talking with the plaintiff is not the same as going before the judge. You do not have to come to an agreement with the plaintiff.

If you do not owe the money, or you cannot pay each month, do not enter into an agreement with the plaintiff.

An agreement you sign may become a binding or permanent order of the court. Be careful. Do not sign anything you do not agree with.

In the court room


  1. When the court clerk calls your case, go to the front of the court room.
  2. Stand when you speak to the Judge. When you speak to the judge call him or her “Your Honor.”
  3. You must treat other people in the court respectfully. Do not cut someone off when they are speaking.
  4. Speak clearly and slowly. A machine or a person may be recording you. If you mumble, speak too quickly, too softly, or answer by shaking or nodding your head, the record will not be accurate and you may not be heard.
  5. Make sure you tell the judge if you do not understand anything. It is ok to ask the judge or anyone else to explain what they are saying or to speak more slowly.

If you are not filing counterclaims, the Judge will ask you if you owe the specific amount of money the plaintiff is asking for. If you do not owe that amount exactly, or you are not sure, tell the judge.

Only agree with the judge if you really do agree.

Before you leave the court

Before you leave court make sure you understand what happens next.

Ask the clerk, if you do not understand something or you are confused about what you must do. If you are supposed to come back, make sure you know when and where. If you are supposed to submit something to the court, make sure you know how to do it. If the judge made a decision or you settled the case, make sure you have a copy of the order or agreement.

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