Taking part in a court hearing can feel overwhelming, but knowing what to expect can help.
On this page you will learn:
- how to read a court hearing notice and prepare for a hearing;
- what to expect when you get to court; and
- how to keep in touch with the court after your hearing.
Video: Overview of getting ready for a court hearing in Vermont and what to expect
Step 1: Find help if you need it
Many people represent themselves in court, but you can get help if you need it:
- Anyone with a civil (not criminal) court hearing in a Vermont court can contact us at Legal Services Vermont for quick advice about their upcoming hearing. We can help you understand what your hearing is about and how to prepare. We can’t help with criminal cases or traffic violations, but we can help victims of crime.
- Anyone with a court hearing (civil or criminal) can also contact the Vermont Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service to possibly consult with an attorney before your hearing, even if you don’t want an attorney to represent you in the hearing.
- If you have an upcoming criminal hearing, contact your local court to apply for a public defender. Or contact the Vermont Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service
- Are you a Vermonter living with a disability? Does your disability make it hard for you to communicate with the court or understand what is happening in your case? Ask the court about getting a Communication Support Specialist for your case. Or call 1-888-686-VCSP or email email@example.com. Find information about the Vermont Communication Support Project on the Disability Rights Vermont website.
- Do you speak another language more than English? Contact the court before your hearing and ask for an interpreter
- Many people in Vermont go to court to get a Relief from Abuse (RFA) order without a lawyer. But you do not have to do this on your own. (See our RFA Roadmap for details.) You can get help from:
- one of the member organizations of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
- Vermont Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-228-7395
- Vermont Sexual Violence Hotline at 1-800-489-7273
- Legal Services Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid. Call 1-800-889-2047 or fill out our Legal Help Request Form.
Step 2: Read your notice and get ready
If you’re attending a court hearing in Vermont, you’ll get a letter, or “hearing notice,” which tells you:
- the time and address of the hearing;
- the type of hearing; and
- how long the hearing should last.
Don’t throw away the notice. Read all mail from the court right away and keep court papers somewhere you can easily find them.
Some hearings are “block scheduled.” This means people with different cases may show up at the same time. The judge will hear cases in the order they show up or are ready. Show up on time for your hearing or, if you can, arrive early.
Be sure to check the address on the notice. Some cities have more than one court building.
The notice may also tell you how to participate in the hearing. It could be in person, by phone, or online by video. Contact the court before your hearing if you have questions. (See our tips for remote hearings.)
The notice also tells you what kind of hearing it will be. For example:
- In a “status conference,” the judge talks to both sides to figure out what should happen next, or to see if the people involved can settle their differences.
- In a “motion hearing,” the court hears arguments or testimony about a request from one of the people involved, such as asking to dismiss the case.
- A “final hearing” or “merits hearing” is also known as a “trial.” This is when the court hears from the people involved and any witnesses to help decide who should win the case.
If you’re testifying, practice your answers to possible questions from the other side — called the “opposing party” — their lawyer, and the judge. Also write down any questions you want to ask witnesses or the other side. Think about any witnesses you want to testify for you, and ask them to come to court.
Do you have documents, papers, pictures, or messages (such as text or Facebook messages) that you want the judge to see? These are called “exhibits.”
Keep your exhibits well-organized, and be sure you can tell the court what they are and where you got them. Print at least three copies of all exhibits and bring them to court. Give one copy to the judge and one to the other side. Keep the third copy for yourself.
If your hearing is by phone or online by video, you probably need to give out copies of your exhibits before the hearing. If the hearing notice doesn’t tell you, call the court and ask.
Step 3: Get to your hearing early
On the day of your hearing, dress neatly and professionally, even if you’re participating by online video.
Court hearings don’t always start or end on time. Take time off work if you need to. Make sure someone can watch your kids and pets until at least a couple of hours after the time your hearing is scheduled to end.
Depending on the type of hearing, you may be able to bring a support person with you. However, they will not be allowed to speak in the hearing, and may not be able to sit at the table with you.
Get to court early. You will go through a security check and metal detector when you enter the courthouse. Tell a court security officer what case you are there for and they will tell you where to go.
When you find the right courtroom, check in with a clerk or security officer.
If you’re attending the hearing by phone or computer, connect at least five minutes early. Your court notice will include the contact information. Be in a quiet location, and not in a moving car. When you connect, a court staff member will ask what case you’re there for.
Step 4: Follow the rules of the courtroom
You can have a phone or other electronic device with you in court—but make sure it’s on silent.
The judge will enter the room and everyone will stand up, and the court officer will call the name of your case.
You and the other side or their lawyer will take turns speaking or asking witnesses questions. The judge may also ask you questions.
If you think of something you need to say, but it’s not your turn, write it down. Don’t interrupt.
Stand when it is your turn to speak, unless the judge says you can stay seated, and call the judge “Your Honor.”
At the end of your hearing, the judge will either give you a written decision, called an “order,” or let you know when a decision will be delivered to you. If you’re getting an order that day, don’t leave court right away! The court clerk will ask you to sign for the order and give you a copy
Step 5: Keep in touch with the court
It’s important that the court knows how to reach you about your case, any deadlines, or any future hearings.
If you haven’t already, get a Notice of Appearance form (also found at the court clerk’s office). Fill it out and give it to the court clerk before you leave. Any time your phone, mailing address, or email changes while your case is still going on, make sure to fill out a new Notice of Appearance form.
Have questions about your court hearing? Plan ahead and contact us at Legal Services Vermont.