8 Tips for Pro Se Litigants Appearing In Court Virtually
by Amelia Toledo, Esq. March 18, 2021
Amelia Toledo is a staff attorney for the Legal Hotline.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most court appearances in New York are virtual proceedings that you may join via your computer or phone. Each court has different practices that are evolving rapidly and you should call the court directly if you have specific questions. The following are general tips to help you prepare and represent yourself in a virtual court proceeding.
- Before the hearing date
Make sure you provide the court with an email address you have access to. Check your email inbox regularly for court instructions, scheduling notices, and links for virtual appearances.
Most courts are using a free application called Microsoft Teams to conduct virtual court sessions. Download Microsoft Teams by following the instructions in this link: https://portal.nycourts.gov/knowledgebase/article/ka-01070 and practice using it.
If you are assisting someone who needs an interpreter, let the court know as soon as possible. Call the court clerk’s office or Office of Language Access at 646-386-5670 and tell them the court date, index number, and the language or dialect interpreter that is needed.
If you need documents from the court’s files, call the court clerk as soon as possible. Each court has different policies, and response times vary from days to weeks for records retrieval.
- Find out your hearing date
If you have not received a link for your virtual appearance, call the court to request the link. You may find court phone numbers here: http://www.nycourts.gov/courts/index.shtml
You can also check the docket sheet to confirm your next appearance date. You can search by index number or party name here: https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/webcivil/ecourtsMain.
- Make sure your technology works and you can be seen and heard clearly
- If you are using a computer, make sure the sound output or audio is on.
- If you are using a phone, find a way to prop it up so you don’t have to hold it. This will stabilize your video and free your hands for notetaking.
- Test the angle of your device’s camera. The judge should be able to see your entire face.
- Make sure you have enough power. Charge your device and keep it plugged in or have the plug readily accessible.
- Use a headset if you can; it will help you hear better.
- Follow appropriate courtroom decorum
In a virtual court appearance, all parties should behave as they would during an in-person appearance.
- Be on time.
- Dress appropriately.
- Silence your cellphone and any computer alerts.
- Mute yourself when you are not speaking.
- Try not to interrupt another party or the judge.
- Have a sheet of paper to take notes or to list what you want to say when it is your turn to speak.
- If possible, be in a closed room by yourself with no other distractions. A hearing can be 30 minutes to an hour long.
- Do not try to multitask with household chores, childcare, or other work. The judge will expect your full attention.
- If you have children, try to give them something that will keep them busy for upwards of an hour.
- It is best to sit in front of a plain wall, in a well-lit area. If you are concerned for your safety, you can select a plain or blurred virtual background in Microsoft Teams.
- Note that you may not record a virtual hearing.
- Prepare your main points
Try to understand the purpose of your court appearance. Is it to vacate a judgment, schedule deadlines, or present evidence? Think about what your goals are and the legal standard you will need to meet. Prepare your main points to meet the purpose of the hearing.
- Prepare your evidence
In general, except for hearings on an Order to Show Cause, most first-time court appearances will not involve presenting evidence. However, understanding what evidence you have or need to get is helpful in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your case and any settlement offers.
For virtual hearings, the court should provide you with instructions regarding presenting evidence, such as emailing documents to a clerk. It is best to wait for the court to provide you with instructions on this. Remember, you can respectfully request an adjournment if you are unable to or did not understand procedures for submitting evidence to the court before a hearing.
- Appointment of counsel
In general, civil litigants are not entitled to free representation, but courts are making an extra effort to offer counsel to unrepresented people due to the pandemic.
If you have an attorney, make sure to plan with your attorney how you will communicate with them during the hearing, as you will be in different locations.
Note that if you are granted counsel by the court, you may not “meet” them until the next court date. If the judge tells you the name of your appointed counsel, you can ask the judge to spell it out and if possible, to provide their email address. You can also search for an attorney’s contact information by entering their first and last name here: https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/attorneyservices/search?1
- In-person appearance option
Some courts are working on creating a dedicated courtroom for pro se litigants to appear in person for a virtual proceeding, if they are unable to attend via phone or computer. Contact the court to check on the availability of this option.
Virtual Bench Trials, Protocols and Procedures by Hon. Norman St. George, J.S.C.,
Virtual Court Information Center, https://portal.nycourts.gov/public-user/
NYC Family Court Guide for Virtual Appearances, http://www.nycourts.gov/LegacyPDFS/COURTS/nyc/family/Guide-to-Virtual-Appearances.pdf
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