Be Prepared! How To File Court Documents With Confidence

how to file court

COURT APPEARANCES is a regularly recurring column dedicated to providing men – both pro-se litigants and those represented by counsel – with helpful tips for courthouse customs, processes and decorum.

Courthouse business requires adequate preparation. It doesn’t matter whether you are representing yourself in a legal proceeding or just taking care of a routine filing matter; preparation and organization will help you avoid unnecessary complications that could haunt you throughout the duration of your case.

The first step of any courthouse trip should be to confirm that you are going to the proper courthouse. Depending on the size and location of your community, there may be more than one courthouse (or “justice center” as they are frequently called now). Large metropolitan areas often serve as the home to federal courthouses, state appellate courthouses, county courthouses and perhaps even municipal courthouses. Some of these locations may handle only criminal cases; some only civil. And some may be special-purpose courthouses such as federal bankruptcy court or a municipal traffic court.

It is essential that you know exactly which courthouse is the proper one for your case because incorrectly filed documents may not be returned to you (if at all) until after such time as your legal rights may have been adversely affected. There may be other jurisdictional factors to be taken into account such as which county or other venue has the legal ability to hear and rule on your case. We recommend that you confer with appropriate counsel to answer any questions you may have about jurisdiction.

For the purpose of this article, we are going to assume that the documents you intend to file are in the proper form pursuant to all applicable rules of court. You will need to make sure that you have the appropriate number of copies of the document(s) you will be filing. Absent specific rules or instructions, it is always a safe bet to make at least one copy of the document(s) for every named party in a case, including yourself. You should also make certain that these copies go to the attorneys of any parties who are not representing themselves. Again, check with the applicable court rules regarding acceptable methods of service of documents.

A good thing to do prior to your visit is to check online to see whether the court in which you are planning to file documents has posted specific filing instructions. You may also wish to call the clerk’s office ahead of time to ask any questions and confirm exactly what you will need to bring and to do and where to go  in order to carry out a successful filing. Chances are, most clerks will be happier to answer a few questions you may consider “silly” over the phone than to waste their time having to walk you through their processes in person, especially if there is a line of more experienced filers waiting impatiently for you to finish.

Once at the courthouse, take the time to get your documents out ahead of time and have them separated and ready for filing, document by document. Your time at the desk or counter should not be wasted digging through a briefcase or handbag looking for what it is you need to file.

Be certain to ask the clerk to “file stamp” all copies that are being returned to you. A file-stamped copy is your proof that a document has been accepted by the court for filing. It does not necessarily mean that the document will ultimately be admitted for its intended purpose or ruled upon favorably by a judge. All it means is that it has been made – at least for the time being – a part of the court’s file.

We recommend that you bring some envelopes and postage stamps with you in the event the clerk is unable to provide you with file-stamped copies immediately or if you are submitting documents which must be signed by a judge or other court personnel and returned to you. In the event your documents are more than a few pages, be certain to affix sufficient postage to assure timely return. If you are asked to provide self-addressed, stamped envelopes and do not have them fully prepared, take yourself out of line to complete that task and then return once you’re ready to submit everything at once. A busy clerk should appreciate your respect for his or her time.

In general, keeping court clerks happy is an important consideration for everyone who uses the courthouse, be they judge, attorney or private citizen. They are the backbone of the justice system and work very hard to keep the wheels of justice greased and moving. Accordingly, making their jobs more difficult will usually result in delay and inefficiency. Your lack of a law license is no excuse to create additional work for a court clerk, but more importantly, a clerk who has the benefit of your assistance and respect will oftentimes be a tremendous source of assistance when navigating the halls of justice on your own.

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