A hearing is a meeting at the court in front of the judge, where decisions are made about your case.
Whether to attend a court hearing
You should always go to a hearing involving your case. If you don't go, decisions can be made in your absence. You could find the whole case has been decided against you.
Even if you have agreed something with the other party, the court may not accept that agreement unless you are there in person.
The only reasons not to go are because:
- your solicitor or adviser says you don't need to attend
- the court tells you that the hearing has been cancelled or moved to another date.
- you are unable to attend due to illness or family emergency. This must be something serious and unavoidable. A routine appointment or difficulty getting time off work is not a good reason. Tell your solicitor (if you have one) as soon as possible. If you don't have a solicitor, contact the court and find out what you need to do to change the date. If there is time, you may have to go to court to explain to the judge why the hearing should be moved
If you can't go, but haven't had time to contact the court or your legal adviser, telephone the court or ask someone to call for you to explain the problem.
Preparation for a court hearing
Make sure you understand what the hearing is about.
Work out if you need to prepare anything beforehand and what you should take with you. This could include:
- important documents. For the trial, you need all of your papers, but you may find it useful to have them at earlier hearings too
- pens and paper for taking notes
- a diary, to fix future court appointments
- the address and telephone number of the court
Get advice if you don't understand a letter from the court or something happening in your case.
Use Shelter's directory to find an adviser in your area or contact a solicitor.
Arriving at court for a hearing
The court papers tell you when and where your hearing is held.
Try to arrive at the court on time. If you don't arrive at court on time, you could miss your hearing.
When you arrive, you should:
- find out exactly where the hearing is taking place – there should be a list of cases displayed at the court
- let the reception staff or court usher know that you are there to attend the hearing and if you have an adviser
- ask to see the duty adviser if you don't have an adviser or representative to speak on your behalf
The court usher is a court officer who deals with the administration of court hearings. If you cannot find the usher, ask the person at the court front desk or reception where you can find the usher, where to wait and in which room the hearing takes place.
The usher decides in what order the cases are heard. There are probably other cases scheduled to take place at the same time. If there are several cases on the same day, you may have a long wait until your case is called.
If you are alone and need to go to the toilet or briefly need to leave the court, make sure you tell the usher or you could miss your case being called.
Court cases, except in small claims cases and some possession hearings, are heard in large courtrooms.
The court usher tells you when to come in and where to sit. If you are representing yourself or if you have a McKenzie friend, you should sit near to the front. If you have a solicitor or barrister, you should sit behind them. Other people such as witnesses sit at the back.
The judge then comes in and the usher asks everyone to stand. Then everyone sits down. The judge says who is to speak and only that person stands up.
Find out more about representation in court.
Usually the person who started the case (the claimant) or their representative speaks first. They explain what the case is about. They explain the claimant's evidence to the judge, usually by showing documentary evidence, explaining it and calling witnesses.
Documents should already be copied into files called 'trial bundles'. The judge should have a copy.
Witnesses are asked to come to the front, usually to a witness box. The claimant asks the witness to say what they saw and heard. At the end, the defendant can ask questions.
The judge can ask questions at any time.
The defendant (person who the case is against) or their representative speaks next. The defendant speaks to their witnesses first, and then the claimant can ask questions.
At the end of this, the claimant is allowed a chance to reply to any points made by the defendant and then end the case.
The judge then makes a decision. This may be immediate in a straightforward case. In a complicated case the judge's decision can take days or even weeks. The judge should say how long it will take.
In a possession hearing, the case is dealt with more quickly. There is no trial bundle, so you need to pass any documentary evidence to the usher, who hands it to the judge. But the procedure is basically the same.
In court, you should always address the judge. Strictly speaking, you should call her or him 'your honour' in the county court, but it is more important to be polite. Don't argue with the judge or the other party. If you believe the judge has misunderstood your point, you can explain it, without arguing about it.
Make sure you say everything you want to say. If there is something you don't understand ask the judge to explain. But don't interrupt the judge or the other party. Speak when it is your turn to speak.
If you are represented, only speak when in the witness box. If there is something you want your representative to say, pass him or her a note or whisper it quietly.
Small claims trials, some possession hearings and other hearings are held in a small room, called 'chambers'. Everyone sits round a table, with the district judge at one end. Strictly speaking, you should call the district judge 'sir' or 'madam', but it is more important to be polite.
If it is a trial or possession hearing, the order of what happens is the same as in a courtroom. If it is a hearing to decide how the case is to be run, the district judge explains what they want each side to say.
The district judge then makes a decision. This is usually immediate.
Judgments made at a court hearing
When the judge makes a decision, this is called a judgment. The judgment says what should happen next.
If the judgment says that someone must pay money, it also says when they must pay. If they don't pay in that time, the other party in the case can go back to court and ask the court to 'enforce the judgment'.
If you owe money, pay the other party, and not the court. Get a receipt.
If you don't pay, you will have a county court judgment (CCJ) against you. The other party might take steps to try to make you pay.
Get information from the court about enforcing your judgment if you are owed money and it isn't paid.
Use Shelter's directory to find an adviser who can help you.
Complaints about the outcome in court
It may be possible to appeal if you are not happy with the judgment.
Get advice from a solicitor or specialist adviser as quickly as possible. There are short time limits for making appeals, often two weeks.
Use Shelter's directory to find an advice centre in your area.