What happens at a Supreme Court trial?

It's important to know what will happen at your Supreme Court trial. The sequence of events is the same in all Supreme Court trials:

  1. Opening statements
  2. Presentation of evidence
  3. Closing statements
  4. The judge's decision

Opening statements

At the beginning of the trial, you and the other party will each give an opening statement. If you're the claimant, you'll go first. If you're the respondent, you'll go second. The purpose of an opening statement is to give the judge a brief summary of:

  • your most important issues,
  • the orders you want the judge to make, and
  • what evidence (witnesses and documents) you'll be presenting to the court.

Your opening statement is not the time to give evidence. It's the time to give the judge a roadmap of what evidence you'll give later. Try to make it as short as possible, while still outlining everything you need to. (If you make a lengthy speech, the judge may become impatient with you, which may set a poor tone.) Don't be argumentative or dramatic during your opening statement. You want to appear reasonable, calm, and confident.

Presentation of evidence

The bulk of the trial will be the presentation of evidence. Your evidence may come from:

  • you,
  • your witnesses, and/or
  • your documents (which you or another witness introduces).

Tip: See our fact sheet Present your evidence for more information about what type of evidence is allowed and how to present it.

If you're the claimant, you'll present your evidence first. If you're the respondent, you'll present your evidence after the claimant.

You can decide the order of your own witnesses. If you decide to testify on your own behalf, usually you'll be the first witness when it's your turn to present evidence. You may then be questioned by the other party through cross-examination. If you decide not to testify on your own behalf, the other party may still call you as a witness for their case.

Every witness is sworn in, which means they're asked to swear an oath or affirm that they'll tell the truth (see Tips for conducting your trial). Lying under oath is called perjury and has serious consequences.

If you have any documents that you want the court to consider, you'll need to have one of your witnesses identify them, or you can identify them during your own testimony. These documents — which can include such things as affidavits, financial statements, letters, photographs, receipts, or reports — are called exhibits.

For each witness, the process is the same:

  1. You'll first question your own witness (this is called examination-in-chief). During the examination-in-chief, you may have your witness identify any documents that you wish to be entered as exhibits (see above).
  2. The other party will then have a chance to cross-examine your witness.
  3. You may then re-examine your own witness to clarify matters raised during cross‐examination. However, you can't raise any new issues at this point.
  4. The judge may now question the witness. The judge doesn't always ask questions.

The sequence is the same for the other party's witnesses. They'll question their own witness first. Then you'll have a chance to cross-examine.

Tip: For some tips on how to question witnesses, see our fact sheet Present your evidence. If you or the other party will be calling any expert witnesses, the rules for questioning are a bit different; see Present your evidence for more information.

Closing statements

After all of the witnesses have been called to testify, the judge will ask both parties to make closing statements (sometimes called your summary). This is your last chance to address the court before the judge makes their decision. If you're the claimant, you'll go first. If you're the respondent, you'll go second.

In your closing statement, tell the judge what you believe the decision should be, based on the evidence (your witnesses and documents). You can review the evidence you've introduced. You may also point out problems with the other party's evidence. You can't include issues that haven't already been introduced by the evidence.

The judge's decision

After you and the other party make your closing statements, the judge will either:

  • make an immediate oral decision, or
  • reserve their decision and let you know what it is on another day.

The registry will contact you when the reserved decision is ready. While you're waiting, you can ask the registry staff if they can find out when that's likely to be (they may not be able to find out).

Often, a reserved decision will be given in writing. The decision will state the orders the judge is making and, usually, the reasons why.

This material was adapted, with permission, from the National Self-represented Litigants Project's publication, Coping with the courtroom: Essential tips and information for self-represented litigants.

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