Part 5: Go to your trial

At trial, each side presents its case to the judge or jury. Then, the judge or jury will make a decision about which side wins (or awards a judgment to one side). Trials can last a matter of hours to weeks or even months.

If you've never been to court, get basic tips for what to expect in a courtroom. 

Get basic information like where to sit, what to do if you're late, and what rules you'll need to follow. 

You'll need to know the rules of evidence for your trial

illustration of a book

Get familiar with the rules of evidence. In court, everyone must follow the rules of evidence. These rules say what evidence a judge (or jury) can consider when they make a decision. 

For a judge or jury to consider the evidence (what your witness says or anything else you show), you need to follow the rules of evidence. The other side needs to do the same. If they don't, you can ask the judge to not let the evidence in (you can object). You will need to know these rules to make sure that your evidence is considered and to make sure the other side is following the rules.

Basic overview of a few main rules:

  • No hearsay: Generally, a witness can't say what someone else said to prove what that person said is true. There are many exceptions to this rule. If you want your witness to be able to repeat what someone else said, make sure you there is an exception to the hearsay rule. Evidence Code section 1200The hearsay rule applies to documents as well.
  • Evidence must be relevant: In general, this means that the evidence tends to prove or disprove something that has to be decided for the case. Evidence Code section 210 and 350.
  • No character evidence: In general, you can't present evidence that someone has done something bad in the past to try to show they must be a bad person generally and so probably did what you claim.  Evidence Code section 1101

You can find the rules for what evidence can be used in court in the California Evidence Code. A law library should also have other books that help explain the rules. Being able to work with evidence in court is very important for presenting your case or defense. You may want to consult with an attorney to get help with it.

Basic flow of a trial

Most trials have the same steps. 

Select a step to find out what to expect and get instruction on how to prepare for that step.


You and the other side may start with a brief introduction to your case

An opening statement is a brief introduction to the case. It's a preview of the evidence you plan to present. You can't make arguments in your opening statement. 

In an opening statement, you say what evidence you plan to present and often end with what you want the judge to decide or order.

Often, for a short case without a jury, the judge may ask the sides if they want to skip opening statements. If you filed a trial brief it may replace your opening statement in a case without a jury.

The plaintiff starts the case by presenting evidence

The plaintiff will present their case by either asking a witness questions, offering their own testimony, submitting documents into evidence, or presenting a declaration in lieu of live testimony. The plaintiff can also testify. The plaintiff can call the defendant as a witness. To present a declaration instead of a witness, the case must be a limited civil case ($25,000 or less).

During the plaintiff's case, the defendant can:

After a witness is cross-examined, the plaintiff can ask them more questions. This is called a redirect. After a redirect, the defendant can ask more follow-up questions.

After the plaintiff presents their case, the defendant can present their case

The defendant may choose to testify. If they have any witnesses, the defendant will:

  • Call their witness and examine them, or ask them questions that allow them to give evidence that supports their case
  • Use the testimony of their witnesses to introduce exhibits (documents, emails, etc.) that support their side 

In response to the defendant's presentation:

  • The plaintiff may object to witness testimony or that of the defendant
  • The plaintiff may object to the admission of documents or other evidence
  • The plaintiff may cross-examine the witnesses

The defendant can then briefly question the witness again (a redirect) asking questions that clarify or challenge information from the cross-examination. The plaintiff can then do a brief re-cross-examination.

At the end of the trial, both sides can give a brief summary of their evidence and argue why they should win. The plaintiff will go first. Then the defendant.

After the defendant does their closing statement, the plaintiff can make a brief final argument to address anything from the Defendant's argument (give a rebuttal).

The judge will either make a decision at the end of the trial or will mail the decision to you. If there's a jury, the jury will decide and the judge will call you back into court once they have a decision.

Civil lawsuits

What's next?

Once the trial is over, you'll get a judgment. If the judgment says you owe money, find out what to expect. 

success alert banner:

Have a question about Civil lawsuits?

Look for a "Chat Now" button in the right bottom corner of your screen. If you don’t see it, disable any pop-up/ad blockers on your browser.