Going to Court Basic Information

If you or a family member or friend are about to go to court, let us help navigate the way through the process.

The Basics

How should I prepare for court?
  • If you have an attorney, talk with your attorney in advance to share information about your case and learn about what to expect.
  • Make sure you know your attorney’s name and have contact information for him or her. In counties that allow cell phones in the courthouse, you may be asked to contact your attorney if he or she is not in court.
  • Find out which courtroom your case is scheduled for before court starts. If you have a criminal case, you can find your court date by searching here.  If you have a civil case, you can find your court date by viewing the court calendars here.  You may also call the county clerk of court’s office for court date information.     
  • Depending on your county, court may last all day or half a day. Find out in advance when court begins and how long the session of court will be. Your attorney or the clerk of court can provide this information. Be prepared to be in court for the entire session unless your attorney advises you otherwise.
  • Find out whether your county allows cell phones to be brought into the courthouse. If so, ensure that your ringer is turned off during court. If your county does not permit cell phones and you have evidence on your cell phone, you can ask your attorney, or a clerk of court if you do not have an attorney, about getting permission to bring your cell phone into the courthouse.
  • If you have a disability and need accommodation, contact the Disability Access Coordinator for your county in advance. See the Disability Access Help Topic for more information.
  • If anyone involved in your case needs an interpreter, request one in advance if possible. See the Language Access Help Topic for more information.
  • If you have young children, arrange for their care during the time you will be in court.
  • Gather evidence for your case. Print out evidence stored on your phone, such as pictures. Unless your attorney instructs you otherwise, bring with you any evidence, such as documents you want the court to consider, and any witnesses who plan to testify for you. Once your trial starts, the judge will generally not stop the trial to allow you to get evidence or witnesses that are not in court.
What should I do on the day of court?
  • Dress to show respect for the court. Some courtrooms have specific dress codes for parties appearing in court. Temperatures in courtrooms can vary, so dress in layers to ensure that you are comfortable.
  • Arrive early to make sure you have time to park, go through security and be in the courtroom by the time court begins. Courthouses in smaller towns often have free courthouse parking, but in cities you will typically need to pay for street or garage parking nearby.
  • Bring the court documents related to your case with you, as well as any evidence you plan to present.
  • Bring a pencil and paper to court with you. You may need to take notes about your case or to write down your next court date if the case is “continued,” or postponed.
  • Be prepared to wait several hours for your case to be heard. You may wish to bring a book or magazine to read while waiting.
  • Make sure you are in the right courtroom. In many courthouses, a “docket,” or list of cases scheduled in a particular courtroom on a particular day, will be posted on a wall outside the courtroom.
  • Show respect for the court, for courthouse staff, and for other litigants. While the judge is handling other cases, do not talk in the courtroom except to your attorney or court personnel. When your case is called, do not interrupt or argue with the judge. It is appropriate to address a judge as “Your Honor” or “Judge.”
  • Follow the instructions of the judge and court personnel. Different judges may manage their courtrooms differently.
What should I expect in court?

In most courtrooms, many cases will be scheduled at the same time. The judge, or the prosecutor in a criminal case, will typically begin court by calling the names of everyone with a case scheduled that day. Answer loudly and clearly when your name is called to ensure that the judge knows you are present. Listen closely in case your name is mispronounced. If you do not hear your name called, let the bailiff or prosecutor know as soon as possible. You may be in the wrong courtroom.

The judge or prosecutor will then handle the cases one by one. Each judge may handle cases in a different order: for instance, some judges may begin with the cases expected to take the least time, while others may handle cases in the order in which they were filed. You should be prepared for your case to be heard either at the beginning of court or later in the session. The judge will call you to the front of the courtroom when he or she is ready for your case.

Who are the personnel in the courtroom?
  • Judge: The judge is an elected official who is in charge of the courtroom. The judge usually wears a robe and sits at the front of the room. The judge presides over cases, rules on various matters, and decides the outcome of a trial if there is not a jury.
  • Magistrate:  The magistrate is an appointed court official.  In small claims court, the magistrate has the role of a judge, is in charge of the courtroom and decides cases.
  • Clerk of Court: The Clerk of Superior Court is an elected official who is responsible for court recordkeeping.  Clerks also decide certain types of cases. The elected clerk of court hires assistant and deputy clerks of court to assist with the business of the courts. In “special proceedings,” (which includes adoptions, incompetency proceedings, and foreclosures), and estate administration, the clerk has the role of a judge and decides cases. In a courtroom with a judge, the courtroom clerk is responsible for keeping track of the results of cases and making a recording of the court session, if a recording is required. The clerk of court also has an office in each courthouse where people file court documents and make payments.
  • Bailiff: The bailiff is a local sheriff’s deputy or private security officer who is responsible for keeping everyone safe and maintaining order in the courtroom. The bailiff will typically be in uniform. If you have questions or concerns in court, you can speak to the bailiff.
  • Prosecutor: The District Attorney (DA), or prosecutor, is an elected official who is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases. The elected District Attorney hires assistant district attorneys (ADAs) to assist with prosecutions. The DA or ADA manages and prosecutes criminal cases and juvenile delinquency cases.
  • Victim/Witness Coordinator: A victim/witness coordinator is a staff person who assists the District Attorney’s office in communicating with victims and witnesses in criminal cases. The victim/witness coordinator may attend criminal court.
What if the other party’s attorney wants to talk to me at court?

It is common for parties to try to resolve their cases by agreement while in court. If you are represented by an attorney and the other party’s attorney approaches you, explain that you are represented. When you have an attorney, the other party’s attorney cannot talk to you about the case without your attorney present. If you do not have an attorney, you may choose whether or not you want to speak to the other party’s attorney about the case. Keep in mind that the other party’s attorney cannot give you legal advice and can use your statements against you.

Are there breaks during court?

Almost all courtrooms will have a lunch break, typically for an hour or an hour and a half. Most courtrooms also have a mid-morning and mid-afternoon recess of approximately 10-15 minutes. A judge with a large number of cases may not take breaks.

What if I need to leave the courtroom?

If you need to leave the courtroom temporarily while court is in session, you should make sure the bailiff or someone else in the courtroom knows where you are. If you need to leave while the judge is handling your case, you must ask permission from the judge. If you need to leave court for the day and your case has not yet been called, you should speak to your attorney, or to the prosecutor if you do not have an attorney, so that your case can be brought to the judge’s attention to request a “continuance,” or postponement to another court date. Keep in mind that the judge may require you to stay in court until your case is handled.

Trials

What typically happens in a trial?

Trials can be before a judge or jury. A typical trial includes the following stages:

  • Opening Statement: Parties use an opening statement to preview their case for the judge or jury. Parties are not required to make an opening statement.
  • Plaintiff’s or Prosecution’s Case: Because the plaintiff (in a civil case) or the prosecution (in a criminal case) is required to prove its case first, this party presents evidence first. Evidence can include a party’s testimony, witness testimony, photographs, videos, recordings, and documents. After each witness testifies, the other party has the opportunity to “cross-examine” that witness by asking questions of him or her.
  • Defendant’s Case: After the plaintiff or prosecution finishes presenting its evidence, the defendant also has the opportunity to testify, call witnesses and present evidence. The plaintiff or prosecution may cross-examine any witness who testifies.
  • Rebuttal: After the defendant finishes putting on its case, the plaintiff or prosecution may respond to the defendant’s evidence by calling witnesses or presenting evidence to address the evidence the defendant presented. The defendant may cross-examine any witness who testifies.
  • Closing Arguments: Parties use closing arguments to summarize their case for the judge or jury. Closing arguments are the parties’ opportunity to argue why their side should win the case and what they want the judge or jury to decide. Parties are not required to make closing arguments. Closing arguments cannot include new evidence or information that was not presented in the trial.
How should I prepare to be a witness in court?
  • Testifying in court typically includes two parts: “direct examination,” when the party or attorney who called you as a witness asks you questions, and “cross-examination,” when the other party or attorney asks you questions. You can talk to the attorney who will be calling you as a witness about the subjects he or she plans to ask you about, and the questions he or she expects the other party to ask you.
  • Typically, direct examination consists of open-ended questions, while cross-examination consists of “yes or no” questions. When testifying, you should listen closely to the questions you are asked and answer those questions. If you do not understand the question, you can ask the attorney to repeat or rephrase it. You can take a moment to think about the questions before answering.
  • When testifying, you will be under oath. If you do not know or do not remember the answer to a question, you can state that you do not know or do not remember.
  • If there is an objection while you are testifying, you should stop speaking until the judge rules on the objection. If the judge says “overruled,” your testimony on that matter is allowed. If the judge says “sustained,” that testimony is not allowed, and you should wait for the next question.
How should I question witnesses if I am representing myself?
  • If you are representing yourself, you may call witnesses to help prove your case, and you may ask questions of the other party’s witnesses at the end of their testimony. You must arrange to have your witnesses arrive in court on the trial date, either by getting their agreement to come to court or by having a subpoena issued and served to require their attendance.
  • When you question your witnesses, this is called “direct examination.” You must ask your witnesses open-ended questions, such as “What did you see?” or “When did you speak to me about the case?” Questions that begin with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” or “how” are typically open-ended questions. When you question the other side’s witnesses, this is called “cross-examination.” On cross-examination, you may ask leading questions, such as “Didn’t you see me on the day of the incident?”
How can I subpoena a witness to court?

You can require a witness to attend court and/or bring documents to court through a subpoena. To be valid, a subpoena must be signed by an attorney, clerk of court, judge, or magistrate. If you are representing yourself, a judge or clerk of court in the county where your case is located may be able to sign a subpoena for you. Be prepared to explain why you need the witness in court. After the subpoena is signed, you must then “serve” it on the witness, by arranging to have the sheriff deliver it or by sending it through certified mail, return receipt requested. In non-criminal cases, you must also send a copy of the subpoena to the other party in the case, which can be done via first class mail. Subpoenas should be issued as early as possible to ensure that there is time for service and advance notice to the witness. The subpoena form contains more information about subpoenas.

How should I prepare my evidence if I am representing myself?
  • You should bring three copies of any documents you want to show the court: one copy for the judge, one copy for you, and one copy for the other party. If you only bring one copy, you should be aware that the court may need to keep that copy in the court file.
  • Print out any evidence that is on your phone, such as pictures, text messages, or emails. The judge may or may not be able to view evidence that is on your phone.
  • If you wish to present a video or recording, bring a device to court that is capable of playing the video or recording. In some courthouses, you may need advance permission to bring electronic devices to court.
How should I present evidence if I am representing myself?

You should tell the judge what you want to present, and how you know that the evidence is authentic. You may also call witnesses with personal knowledge to testify that evidence you want to be considered is authentic. The bailiff will typically take the evidence from you and show it to the other party. The bailiff will then typically hand the evidence to the judge.

Can I make objections while representing myself?

Yes, but your objections must be based on the Rules of Evidence. For instance, you can object if the testimony is irrelevant or is hearsay.

Will the judge or jury make a decision immediately?

Judges typically announce their decisions at the end of a trial, but in some cases may take more time to consider the evidence and issue a decision later. Juries will begin deliberations when the trial ends, but may take hours or days to reach a decision.

After Court

How do I get a copy of my court order?

In civil cases, a copy of a court order in your case will typically be mailed to you. You should make sure that the Trial Court Coordinator has current contact information for you. If you do not receive a copy in the mail, you can visit the clerk of court’s office in the county where the case was decided and request a copy. It is your responsibility to ensure that you abide by any court order in your case.

How can I find out what happened in a case?

Most court records are public information, and you can view a court file by visiting the clerk of court’s office in the county where the case took place and requesting the file. However, some court records are confidential, such as juvenile proceedings, involuntary hospitalizations, and cases sealed by a judge. You can look up the results of North Carolina criminal cases at the public terminals located in each clerk of court’s office, or you can ask a clerk of court’s office for assistance in locating records. See Court Records Help Topic for more information.

What if I want to appeal the court’s decision?

You should consult with an attorney immediately. There are short deadlines and technical requirements for appealing decisions which vary based on the case type.