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Before the Trial

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What can I expect at the first court appearance?

If you are seeking a restraining order or another type of emergency relief, such as emergency custody, then the first appearance might be ex parte, meaning you will see the judge but the defendant will not be there. Usually, the judge will review the petition you have filed, ask any questions he or she thinks are important, and decide whether to issue an ex parte temporary order.

If you are not seeking emergency relief, the first (initial) appearance is usually an opportunity for the judge to create a schedule for how the case will proceed, issue any temporary orders that are necessary, and see if the parties can agree on a final outcome. For custody cases, the first appearance gives the judge the opportunity to explain the court process to the parties and make any appropriate temporary (preliminary) decisions regarding custody and visitation while the action is pending. In some jurisdictions, the court rules require the parties to try to mediate and the court may even provide a mediator. If the parties agree on how they would like to see the case decided, then they may be able to resolve it during the first appearance, before mediation, by letting the judge know that they have reached an agreement. If the judge approves an agreement, then he or she may grant a final order based on those terms. If the parties do not agree, or if the judge does not approve a settlement, then future appearances may be scheduled. In some rare instances, a judge may dismiss a case at a first appearance if there is some obvious basis for dismissal – for example

  • if there is a problem with the petition;
  • if the same action is pending in another court; or
  • if the court does not have jurisdiction to hear this type of case.

How should I prepare for the first appearance?

Although the case is just beginning, it’s helpful to think about what you are asking for in a final outcome for your case and whether it might be possible to get that outcome with a settlement agreement. It is important to come to the first appearance knowing what you are asking for in terms of a final resolution because it will set the course for the entire course case. You should also know if you want to have a temporary order in place while the court case is pending and what terms (provisions) may be appropriate. If a settlement is not reached, the judge will primarily focus on matters like advising the parties of their rights, scheduling future court dates, possibly arranging discovery, and issuing any temporary orders, if necessary.

It’s important to research what your potential options are beforehand so that you know what you can ask for when you are in front of the judge. In our Know the Laws – By State section, we have information on what kind of relief may be available in various types of court cases. For example, if you would like to see the abuser pay restitution or be ordered into some kind of rehabilitation program, you may need to request this in your petition and clarify what you are seeking at the first appearance so that the judge knows. Except in protection order cases or other ex parte proceedings, the abuser also has a chance to appear at the first appearance. We have information about Safety in Court to help you prepare for your court day.

What happens at a court conference or a status appearance?

Depending on the type of court case you are involved in, the judge might schedule a court conference or a status appearance after the first (initial) court appearance. The status appearances that occur between an initial appearance and a hearing or trial are a chance for the parties and the judge to:

  • check the status of the case;
  • deal with any scheduling issues;
  • determine whether a settlement is possible; and
  • deal with ongoing issues that might require temporary orders or modifications of temporary orders.

A court conference is a conversation where the parties or their attorneys have a chance to discuss the case and specifically address the prospects of settlement with the judge, the judge’s law clerk, or the court attorney. In some states this conversation is off-the-record.