Tell it to the Judge . . . But Can You?
In this video, attorney Peter Lamont discusses a common misconception about a person's ability to explain their situation to a judge regarding a civil litigation matter.
Hi, and thanks for joining me. Welcome to this video. My name is Peter Lamont. I'm a New Jersey business litigation and real estate attorney, and I make these videos to help people understand some of the confusing aspects of the law, and hopefully it helps.
In today's video, I'm going to talk about a common misconception, and that being that in a civil lawsuit, not criminal, but civil, you can just go and get your day in court and tell your story to the judge. I hear this all the time. We get calls from plaintiffs in a commercial lawsuit or defendants in a business lawsuit, and just recently I got a call where there was an individual who was a partner who was being sued by his other partners in a business matter, a business litigation matter. And the partner called up and said, "Listen, I didn't do what they're saying I did. So answer the complaint, and then I want to go and get my time in front of the judge and tell the judge, 'This isn't me,' because I don't want have to pay legal fees. I don't want to have to worry about this for the next year. I just want to tell my story to the judge."
And this is a very common thought that you're going to be able to just go in and get your day in front of the court early on. You're going to be able to speak with the judge as the party to the lawsuit, whether you're the plaintiff or the defendant, you're going to be able to explain your position and the judge is going to listen to you.
Well, laws are different in every state, but I can tell you for the most part that that's not how it works in just about every state in the United States. I'm going to give you New Jersey specific examples so that you understand. Let's say that you are that defendant in a business litigation matter, a lawsuit, you're being sued by your partners. When you hire an attorney, that attorney files an answer to the complaint. Once that answer is filed, then the discovery process begins where you're exchanging documents and taking testimony. New Jersey judges do not speak to clients at that stage of the case. This is a matter between the attorneys where they're exchanging documents.
In all my years have never seen in a matter like this where it's just a lawsuit, not in order to show cause hearing or some other special circumstance. In normal cases, the judge does not entertain the defendant or the plaintiff. There's no opportunity to have an audience with the judge. That's why you have an attorney. So the judge will set discovery parameters when you have to exchange documents by, when you can take depositions, how many depositions you can take, and so on and so forth to get the information to help the plaintiff prove his or her case, and for the defendant to defend against those allegations. But at no time during that process, is there an opportunity for you to go into the court and explain your case to the judge. It's just not how it works.
In criminal matters or municipal court matters, it's completely different. In a municipal court matter, sure, you get to go in front of the judge and you get to explain your story, and it's you talking directly to the judge. In criminal matters, it's also similar. Now, I don't practice criminal law, but I know that you'll have an attorney and you'll be able to have that interaction and speak to the judge and tell your story. But in civil litigation matters, it's not like that.
I mean, I have practiced through pro hac vice admission in Arizona, Florida, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, and a whole host of other states. And in civil litigation in those states, you don't have as the party to the lawsuit that opportunity to go in and "tell your story to the judge." That's what your attorney does. And really, it's not until the discovery process unfolds where the plaintiff can establish his proofs, and the defendant can either disprove the plaintiff or establish their own defenses that you even have an opportunity to present that part of your case to the court. Maybe on a motion for summary judgment, the judge might have oral argument and maybe have some questions for let's say a defendant. But even at that stage, it is very rare in New Jersey for the client to have that direct interaction with the judge or the court in a civil litigation matter. Your attorney does all of that.
And then of course, if there's a trial and you're put on the stand, that's your opportunity to explain to not only the judge but to the jury and everyone in the courtroom what your story is. But this idea of being able to have my day in court, it's a common phrase that I hear often. "I want to have my day in court. I want to tell my story to the judge." You tell your story to the court through the papers that your attorney files or through an affidavit that you submit. You don't have that opportunity to walk into the courtroom. Regardless of how ridiculous you feel that that lawsuit is against you if you're the defendant or how easy you think it would be to win a lawsuit, if you're the plaintiff, you don't have that ability. That's not how the process works, like it or don't like it.
And sometimes as a lawyer, I don't like it. But there is a process and it has to be followed, and it is set so that it's as fair a system as we can possibly have where everybody has an opportunity to present evidence, to refute evidence, to learn as much about the other party's claims as possible.
And then ultimately, when everything is ready to present to the court at a trial or a motion for summary judgment, then maybe you have an opportunity in one way or another to communicate with the court. But again, it could be through a sworn statement, it could be through your deposition testimony. It's not what you see on TV. It's not that, "All right, I'm going in. Judge, listen, I didn't do this. Judge, this is wrong. This is isn't me. You've got to blah, blah, blah." That's not how it works. For better or worse, it's not how it works.
And I know that some of you will watch this video and say, "This is just because lawyers want to make money or because the legal system is corrupt." And look, some of those things, it's true, there are bad lawyers, there are bad people in this world. But the legal system itself is as good as it's going to get right now. It's a structure to try to ensure fairness for all parties. When people lose cases, of course they don't think it's fair. I've lost motions and things, and I've said to myself, "That was a bad decision or a bad ruling." But you have the ability to appeal a decision in some cases. So it's not as though you are living in the middle ages where the king decides what's wrong, what's right, and if you're wrong, you get your hands chopped off.
I understand that not everybody is happy with the outcome of their legal matter, and they feel as though that if they had had the opportunity to just convey their story to the judge, that they would've prevailed. But it's not how it works. So when you think to yourself, "I'm being sued, I'm just going to go have that opportunity to tell the judge my story," that's wrong. That's not how it goes. You need to hire an attorney to help defend you if you're the defendant. And if you're the plaintiff in a lawsuit, you need to be able to prove your case. You have the burden to prove your case, and you need the assistance of a lawyer to help you with that. Are there people that can fully handle a case? Yes, there are very smart people out there. I've been up against many who have represented themselves in a lawsuit, and they're worthy opponents. They're very smart. They know what they're doing.
So for me to say to you, "You have to have a lawyer all the time," no, I can't really say that. There are some people that can handle their own legal matters. I can tell you that in New Jersey and in most states, that if you are an LLC or a business, you cannot represent that business, pro se meaning without a lawyer. You need a lawyer. So in New Jersey, if your company is sued, you don't have the opportunity to say, "I'm going to defend this case on my own without a lawyer." The rule says you need a lawyer to defend that company. But that's a different video for a different day.
My point today is based solely on this misconception that if you are sued or if you are suing, you're going to have that opportunity early on in the case to just walk into court and explain your story to the judge. That's just not possible. It doesn't work like that. Maybe you've seen it on TV. But that's the point of my videos, is to try to help dispel some myths and clear up some confusion. This isn't Judge Judy. You don't have that same opportunity. Judge Judy is not, in my opinion, real law. It's not a real reflection of the legal system. It's more a reflection of municipal court matters, where you've got all these people in the courtroom, and one by one, you go through your matter and you're talking about a dispute with your neighbor, or you're in maybe a landlord tenant court and you're, you're going to dispute issues with your landlord.
But that's not what civil litigation is in the broader sense. It's not anything possible in the higher courts. In New Jersey, it's a special civil division, which is the lower court, and then there's the law division, which is the primary trial court in the state. You don't have that opportunity.
So when you are sued, the best thing to do is to consult with a lawyer and see what your options are, right? And if you need to sue somebody, consult with a lawyer as well. Find out what your options are. Maybe it's something you can handle on your own. I'm not saying you can't. But if you're a business, you can't defend yourself, and if your matter is overly complex, you might not want to represent yourself in a case. But at the very least, speak to a lawyer and figure out what you're looking at and understand that you don't have that ability to walk into the courtroom and to say to the judge, "Judge, he's got this wrong. It's not me," or, "Judge, this is such a clear case. I should just prevail because here's my evidence." It doesn't work like that.
So hopefully this helps clear up some of that. If it doesn't make sense or if you need more of an explanation or you'd like me to expand on this topic, just let me know in the comments below and we'll do some additional videos on this topic. But any questions or comments, leave me the comments below and we'll get to them.
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As with any legal issue, it is important that you obtain competent legal counsel before making any decisions about how to respond to a subpoena or whether to challenge one - even if you believe that compliance is not required. Because each situation is different, it may be impossible for this article to address all issues raised by every situation encountered in responding to a subpoena. The information below can give you guidance regarding some common issues related to subpoenas, but you should consult with an attorney before taking any actions (or refraining from acts) based on these suggestions. Separately, this post will focus on New Jersey law. If you receive a subpoena in a state other than New Jersey, you should immediately seek the advice of an attorney in your state as certain rules differ in other states.