In court, it's not enough to know a fact - you have to be able to prove it. That means you have to be able to convince a jury or a judge that the fact is most likely true. Proving a fact requires evidence - something reliable to help convince the jury or judge. Judges and parties must follow rules of evidence to ensure that the judge or jury receives reliable and accurate information. While the rules may differ in each court, the following steps provide a framework you may consider as you gather and present evidence in court.
Decide what you want from the court and what you need to show. When preparing your case, take the time to think through the following:
- What is the issue in dispute?
- What do you want the court to order?
- What facts do you want the judge or jury to believe?
- What are your arguments in support of why the court should give the order that you want?
- What are your arguments in support of why the judge or jury should believe the fact that you are stating?
- Are there specific examples that support your arguments?
- Do you have proof that you can use to support your argument?
Consider writing everything down. Organizing the information in a chart may be helpful.
|Write the issue here:|
|What do you want the court to order? Or, what fact do you want the judge or jury to believe?|
||Specific examples to support your arguments:||Examples of proof you can use to support your arguments:|
The links at the end of the article provide a blank chart with samples that you can use when thinking through your case.
As you prepare your case, you may want to keep a notebook or file containing:
- Your list of witnesses.
- The points each witness will testify about.
- A list of exhibits.
- The procedures to admit each exhibit into evidence.
- A summary of your major arguments.
Identify and gather potential evidence
Evidence can be in two main forms. You and other witnesses may talk to the judge in court about your own knowledge (“testimony”), or you might show the judge documents, objects, messages, or photos (“exhibits”).
When gathering information and documents to use as proof to support your arguments, first look for any documents or information that you already have. If the other party has the documents or information, consider whether you can use the discovery process to obtain those documents or information. Learn more about the discovery process.
Some information may be held by third parties. If witnesses won’t come to court or people won’t give you the documents or information you need, the court can issue a court order called a “subpoena.” You can contact the clerk’s office at your court to ask how to have subpoenas issued and what fees you may have to pay. Learn more about subpoenas.
If you need certified copies of official documents like medical records or police reports, you can contact the offices that keep them and ask how to obtain certified copies and how much it will cost.
Select the evidence that proves what you want to show and that the judge can rely on
As you review your list of potential evidence, select the most trustworthy (“reliable”) information. The rules of evidence in your court protect your rights by ensuring that only reliable evidence is presented by you and the other party.
Rules of evidence are a set of rules that describe how to present evidence for each case. Different case types may have their own rules of evidence. The Maryland Rules of Evidence apply to most actions and proceedings in Maryland state courts.
Read the Rules: Maryland Rules, Title 5
The rules of evidence in each case will provide that people can only talk about what they know first-hand. Witnesses should be able to explain what they saw, heard, and experienced. The other party has the right to cross-examine you or a witness during testimony.
Usually, a person may not testify about statements made by other people outside of court (“hearsay”). The rule against hearsay prevents a person from testifying that another person’s statement is true unless the other person can be brought to court to testify. There are exceptions to the hearsay rule, such as excited utterances, statements against interest, and statements made in official records. The judge in your case can decide whether a statement is hearsay and rule whether a statement is admissible.
Read the Rules: Maryland Rules, Title 5, Chapter 800
Review how to present exhibits in court
Before a judge will consider testimony or an exhibit, you must follow certain steps to admit the information into evidence. You should carefully review the following steps before you attend the courtroom:
- The exhibit is in the proper form (for example, print, transcription, on storage device, or certified copy).
- The exhibit is provided to the other party ahead of time.
- You have made enough copies of the original (one for you, one for the other party).
- You have asked the clerk how to mark the exhibits. Some courts will ask you to label the exhibits with identifiers such as stickers (e.g., Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and so on). Other courts may mark the exhibits themselves as they are introduced. Some courts require you to remove or black out sensitive or confidential information such as social security or bank account numbers.
- Decide which witness (you or another person) will introduce the exhibit into evidence. That person must have first-hand knowledge of where the document or information came from and its authenticity.
Introducing exhibits in court
To show the court an exhibit when you are in the courtroom:
- Show the exhibit to the judge and the other party or the other party’s attorney.
- Either you or another person must testify about what the exhibit is and where the exhibit came from.
- Ask the court to move the exhibit into evidence. The other party can state their concerns with the exhibit (make an “objection”). Try to answer the objection, or you may request an opportunity to fix the concern with additional testimony. The judge will then rule whether to admit the exhibit or not.
- If the exhibit is admitted, you may then present testimony as to why the document or information helps prove a fact in your case.
When the other party introduces their exhibits or testimony, you can also object if a rule of evidence says that the information should not be allowed. Some common objections include:
- The evidence is not relevant to the case.
- The evidence is prejudicial and would unfairly bias the judge or jury.
- The evidence is speculation (the witness does not know whether the fact is true).
- A question is leading (leads a witness to a certain answer).
- The testimony is hearsay (a statement that the witness heard from someone else).