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Getting Ready for Hearing or Trial

How will I know when to be in court and what do I have to prepare?

Most courts will send you a scheduling order if your case involves a trial or a notice of hearing if your case involves a hearing. Read this important document carefully. It will tell you when you need to be in court and what you must file before the trial or hearing. If you do not obey the order, the court could impose sanctions that might include not being allowed to call your witnesses.

If you haven’t heard when your trial date will be, you can file the following form to schedule a trial date:

For more information, please call the Family Law Self-Help Center.

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What is the difference between a hearing and trial?

In a family law case, a trial is the court proceeding when each side presents their arguments and supporting evidence for what each wants the court to order. When the trial is over, the judge issues final orders and the case is over. For example, in a divorce with property and children involved, the trial will result in final orders that grant the divorce, divide the marital property and debts, issue a parenting plan and a child support order.

A hearing is a court proceeding where one or a few issues are decided usually on a temporary basis before the trial. Hearing are shorter than trials and may be as short as 15 minutes or as long as 2-3 hours. For example, a parent may file a motion for a temporary parenting plan for their child. The judge may hold a hearing and ask both parents to present their argument on what the child's living schedule should be until trial when the final parenting plan is ordered. After hearing from both parents and considering any evidence presented, the judge may order a temporary parenting plan. Hearings also occur when someone files a motion to modify a parenting plan or child support after a final judgment has been entered.

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What is the difference between an informal trial and a formal trial?

There are two different types of trial processes to resolve cases involving divorce, property division, parenting arrangements and child support: informal trials and formal trials. You will need to choose the type of trial that you think is best for your case. Learn more about the two trial options.

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How should I behave in court?

  1. Arrive on time for your hearing or trial. Allow plenty of time to get to the courtroom. If there is not free parking at your local court, make sure you have enough money to park at a meter or use a pay parking lot.
  2. Dress neatly and wear conservative clothing. Shorts, T-shirts, plunging necklines, and torn clothing are not appropriate. You do not have to buy new clothing for court, but remember it is a formal place and you want to be conservative and respectful in dress and behavior.
  3. Certain behaviors are not allowed because they are noisy, distracting or disrespectful. You cannot: chew gum, eat, sleep, wear a hat, listen to earphones, text, talk on your phone, take photographs, or carry a weapon.
  4. Treat everyone with respect, including the opposing party, the judge, any witnesses and the court staff. Address the judge as "your honor." Stand when the judge enters or leaves the courtroom. Remove your hat and turn off your cell phone.
  5. Do not interrupt anyone and do not argue with the opposing party. The judge will give each side an opportunity to present their information so wait your turn and you will be able to speak. Talk directly to the judge and not to the opposing party. Speak loudly and clearly into the microphone. Ask the judge for permission to speak if you need to say something and think the judge is moving on to something else.
  6. Bring an outline of what you want to say. As you cover each point, check it off. Before you finish, look back to see if you covered everything. The Judge will only want to hear information that is needed to decide the requests made in the court papers. Practice explaining your request to a friend. If your friend doesn't understand you or find your argument convincing, think about how to improve your presentation.
  7. Bring your records and documents you want the court to consider so you can refer to them. Bring a notepad and pens for taking notes during the hearing.
  8. Do not bring children. Unless the court has told you to bring your children to the hearing, make arrangements for someone to take care of them.
  9. Control your emotions. It is ok to be upset or cry. However, do not yell, roll your eyes, throw your hands up in despair, pound on the table or storm out of the hearing. If you need a short break to compose yourself, ask the judge for a brief recess.
  10. Before you leave the courtroom, make sure you understand what happens next. Do you need to come back for another court hearing? Do you need to prepare any written documents to file? Do you need to take other steps or actions? Will the Judge send an order by mail? Politely ask questions if you do not understand what will happen next.

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What does the court consider evidence?

Evidence is the information you provide to the court during a case to support your position when you are requesting something from the court. There are two main forms of evidence - people's testimony as witnesses and items presented as exhibits. The Rules of Evidence control what evidence the court is allowed to consider in a formal trial. Read the Rules of Evidence PDF.

When people speak as witnesses in court it is called testimony. You can testify if you are the plaintiff / petitioner or defendant / respondent. Other people who have direct and relevant knowledge can testify as witnesses. Also people who keep records can testify about the records. Learn how to choose witnesses. Learn how to prepare your witnesses.

When things are used to present a case, they are called exhibits. This can be photographs, records such as police reports, medical, bills, appraisals, school report cards, etc. Basically any item that is relevant to the case can be considered as evidence. You have to prepare your exhibits BEFORE you come to court for the trial, and then bring them to the trial. Even if you already filed them earlier in the case with other documents such as motions or a trial brief, you still need to prepare your exhibits and bring new copies to the trial. There is a specific way to prepare exhibits. Learn how to prepare your exhibits. Learn how to introduce exhibits at a formal trial.

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Who are the people in the courtroom?

For many people, the courtroom is an unfamiliar place. We may know generally what happens in court (a judge decides a case), but not how the courtroom works. It helps to look at the roles of the people actually in the courtroom. This diagram outlines the people in a trial and where they sit in the courtroom. Some courtroom designs may vary, but this diagram shows a standard layout.

Diagram showing where people in the courtroom sit.
  1. Judge:  The judge makes sure that hearings and trials are conducted according to the law and court rules. The judge sits in the front of the courtroom behind a raised bench that faces the whole courtroom. In civil hearings and trials without juries, the judge decides the issues in the case.  The judge is addressed as "Your Honor."  The judge wears a black robe when presiding over a hearing or trial in the courtroom.  You should stand when the judge enters the courtroom.
  2. In-court clerk:  The in-court clerk sits to the side of the judge in his/her own specialized work station. The in-court clerk does several tasks in the courtroom, including checking in the parties when they arrive, announcing the judge when he/she enters the courtroom, swearing in the parties by giving the oath to tell the truth, making an electronic recording of the court proceeding, and writing "log notes" which are notes of what is said in the proceeding.
  3. Witness:  The plaintiff or defendant may have people who are witnesses that will present testimony or introduce a physical piece of evidence that is relevant to an issue in the case.  Both the plaintiff and defendant (or their attorneys if represented) have the opportunity to ask the witnesses questions. The witness sits in a separate area often called the "witness box" which is often located next to the in-court clerk.
  4. Plaintiff:  The plaintiff is the person who filed the case and sits at a table across from the judge's bench and in front of the public seating area. If the plaintiff is represented by an attorney, the attorney will sit with the plaintiff.  In a criminal case, the plaintiff is either the State of Alaska or a local government such as a municipality, depending on the type of crime that the defendant is charged with committing.  The prosecutor is the lawyer who represents the government to put on a case to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty.  In a civil case, the plaintiff is a private individual or a corporation who has a dispute with the defendant.
  5. Defendant:  The defendant is the person against whom the plaintiff filed the case.  The defendant sits at a table next to the table where the plaintiff sits.  Both tables are across from the judge's bench and in front of the public seating area. If the defendant is represented by an attorney, the attorney will sit with the defendant.  In a criminal case, the defendant is accused of committing a crime.
  6. Jury:  If the case is a jury trial, a group of people from the community are randomly selected to serve on the jury to hear the evidence in the case.  They sit in assigned seats in an area called the "jury box," which is located to the side of the courtroom so the jurors can see the judge, plaintiff, defendant and witness box.  In a criminal case, the jurors will decide whether the prosecutor has met their burden of proof to show that the defendant is guilty of committing a crime.  Civil cases often do not have juries and instead are heard only by a judge who will decide the issues.  Sometimes, however, there are civil jury trials and the jurors determine which party prevails or wins the case.
  7. Public seating: Most all cases are open to the public to watch.  Members of the public sit in the back and quietly observe the proceedings. 
  8. Podium:  There is a podium (raised small table with a microphone to stand behind) located in between the tables where the plaintiff and defendant sit.  The podium may be used by attorneys to question witnesses or by the plaintiff and defendant if they are representing themselves.  Sometimes the judge may allow everyone to stay seated.  If you are representing yourself, it is a good idea to ask the judge if you should stand to question witnesses or present testimony or if it is ok to stay seated. 

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What should I expect about the judge?

The judge is neutral and unbiased. This means the judge usually has no expression on his or her face when in court. So don't think the judge is against you or doesn't like you if he or she doesn't smile or nod when you are testifying. Also, the judge may write or type notes about your case or go through your file during the trial or hearing. This may be helpful to understand your case and organize information to make the decision.

You cannot call the judge on the phone or talk to the judge about your case if you see him or her out in the community. All communication with the judge has to be done in court on the record or by filing papers with the court and that you give the other side a copy. The judge will send notice to both sides about hearings and trial and will send both sides copies of any orders in the case.

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Can I participate in the hearing or trial if I can't be there in-person?

If you do not live in the community where the case is being heard and can't easily get there, you may ask the court to appear and testify by telephone. You can file:

If the court grants your motion, it will provide you with information about how to participate by phone. Usually the court will provide you with a phone number to call in to the hearing. Make sure you are in a quiet location and if possible call from a land line instead of a cell phone.

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What other resources can I use to prepare?

A private attorney can be found by word of mouth or through the Alaska Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service

The Family Law Self-Help Center website has information and forms and the staff can answer questions on the telephone help line.

The Internet, your local bookstore or law library also have materials available for preparing for trial or hearings.

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Rev. 12 May 2017
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