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Rules for speaking for yourself in General Sessions Court
Honorable Toby Gilley
Effective December, 2014
This informational packet pertains to General Sessions Court, Part III which hears cases set on the Civil docket. This means we hear non-criminal cases. This includes automobile accidents, debt collection and landlord/tenant cases. We also hear home improvement, property, employment and auto repair contract cases.
What I will do first is read the list of cases I will hear today. I need complete silence in the courtroom. That means no talking or making noises. Turn off your cell phones. When I call your name, please say “here”. After I call the case list, you may be asked to go outside the courtroom to talk to people on the other side of your case. This is a last chance to settle the case yourselves. If you still can’t agree, you will get a trial.
Give the other side copies if you have them. If you don’t have copies, let them read the papers and then give them back. This will save time when we start your case. This is what lawyers must do and we expect the same if you represent yourself. Everyone must be polite in court. No cursing, yelling or being rude to anyone. Court Security can help with this if there is a problem.
Lawyers are here only to help their client. They don’t speak for the court.
Rules for the Trial
1. Burden of Proof. The person who filed the lawsuit is called the plaintiff. If you are the plaintiff, you must prove you should win. That means that more than half the proof must show you are right. The Person who was sued is called the defendant. If you are the defendant, you have a chance to tell your side. You also have the right to sue the plaintiff before the trial date. This is called a counter-complaint. If you file a counter-complaint, you are no longer the defendant. Now you are a counter-plaintiff and must prove your case. More than half the proof must show you should win.
2. It May help to have a Lawyer. Before the trial, either side can hire a lawyer. A lawyer is trained in the law and can help you show your proof. The lawyer also knows the rules for giving proof and when to object to something. Both sides should think about getting a lawyer. The court knows you may not be able to pay a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may contact the Legal Aid Society at (615) 890-0905. If Legal Aid is able to take your case, they will provide free legal help. If not, they will be able to provide you with one of their helpful information brochures. You have the right to speak for yourself in court. The court will be fair to both sides if they have a lawyer or not.
3. How the Trial works. If you are the plaintiff, you go first. Your witnesses will testify. Then the other side can question your witnesses. Everyone must show respect and be polite. That means no yelling, cursing, rude comments or name-calling. Ask the witness questions. Don’t testify yourself. Don’t make personal comments about the witness or what they say. After the plaintiff finishes, it is the defendant’s turn. If you are the defendant, you can testify and have witnesses testify. The other side gets to question all your witnesses.
4. Rules about Proof. There are rules about the proof you can use. These are called Rules of Evidence. One of the rules says you cannot use hearsay as testimony. Hearsay is when you say what you heard from someone else. Most of the time, you can only testify about what you know. You cannot testify about what someone else knows. There are many rules about proof. You will not know all these rules unless you are a lawyer. You may not know when to object to the other side’s proof. The judge cannot act as your lawyer. The judge can stop a witness if the testimony is not helping explain the case. You may have letters, estimates or other proof that a witness is testifying about. Have the witness look at the proof. The witness must testify that they know about the proof. Then you can ask the court to accept the proof. You can only use the proof if the witness personally knows about it.
5. The Judge does not take sides. The judge must be fair and treat everyone the same. The judge must let both plaintiff and defendant tell their side.
6. Getting more time. There are rules that let you get more time before the trial starts. This is called a continuance. Some courts give you more time so you can get a lawyer. Or you may decide you don’t have the proof you need. Most courts will give you more time to get proof.
Example: Today is the first day that this case has been set for trial. Since you don’t have a lawyer, you may ask for more time before trial. This gives you time to find a lawyer or bring witnesses and proof to court. If you get more time, I will give you a new trial date. That date can’t be changed. Both sides must be there with all their papers, witnesses and proof. If you plan to get a lawyer, do it right away. Make sure they can be at the trial.
7. Rules about how you act. The rules are the same for both sides. Talk to the judge. Don’t talk to or argue with the other side. Show respect and be polite. No yelling, arguing, cursing or name-calling. Do what the judge tells you. This is a court of law. If you don’t show respect, the judge may say it is contempt of court. Then you have to pay a fine or go to jail. It can also make you lose your case.
8. Start of Trial. Mr./Ms. _______________, you may now testify yourself or call your first witness.
9. During the Trial. The judge may tell you or witnesses to stick to the point. This is to keep the case moving. The judge may remind you to ask the witness questions and not testify yourself.
The court wants to find the truth. The judge may ask questions about the case. This is to make sure you stick to the point. Example: You said the defendant harmed you. Did this cause damages?
10. End of Trial. Both sides present their witnesses and proof and then rest their case. The judge may let both sides give a closing argument. This is not testimony. It is a last chance to say what proof you gave that you should win. You remind the judge what testimony your witnesses gave. The person who filed the lawsuit goes first, then the defendant. The judge may let the person who filed answer what the defendant says. This is because the person who filed the suit must prove they should win. The judge may give you a time limit. You must stop when the time is up. So tell your most important proof first.
11. Appeal. The judge will say who won the case. In General Sessions Court, both sides have 10 days to file an appeal. If you disagree with the judge’s decision, an appeal is a chance to change it. When you appeal, the case will be sent to Circuit Court for a new trial in front of a different judge.
There are rules for how to appeal. Ask the General Sessions Clerk’s office how to appeal and how much it costs. If you cannot afford the fees, tell the Clerk. You may be able to file for free if you meet the rules regarding people who cannot afford to pay the cost of an appeal. The other side in your case will be told you appealed. If the other side in your case files the appeal, they pay the fees. You will be told if they appeal. Make sure the Clerk always has your current address in case the other side appeals or the court needs to contact you by mail.
This packet has been prepared as part of the “Access to Justice” emphasis of the Tennessee Supreme Court and with the assistance of printed material prepared by the Honorable Dwight E. Stokes, General Sessions Judge, Sevierville, Tennessee.
Justice for All
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