Should I Consent to Judgment in Court?

Sit in the courtroom during any lengthy Virginia General District Court civil return docket, in Fairfax or elsewhere in Virginia, and you will likely see the following scenario play out: a pro se (meaning “unrepresented”) defendant will approach the front of the courtroom, whether in response to a lawsuit filed by a credit card company, homeowners association, medical provider, or any other type creditor, and the judge will ask the nature of the Plaintiff’s claim and the amount of damages alleged—sometimes thousands of dollars and sometimes hundreds. The judge will then ask the defendant whether or not he or she agrees with the claim, and the individual either responds affirmatively or acknowledges owing the money but attempts to explain that they have unsuccessfully tried to resolve the matter outside of court, or that the debt constitutes a hardship.

Occasionally a judge will ask or prompt the creditor’s attorney to speak with the defendant in the hallway to see if the matter can be resolved, but most of the time the court will proceed to enter “judgment by consent” and then encourage or instruct the defendant to follow up with the attorney to make arrangements to pay off the judgment. The entry of the judgment alone will almost always end up on a defendant’s credit report, and many judgments are taken when both sides would have benefited from making arrangements to satisfy the debt and thereby avoiding the entry of judgment.

Many creditors might assume that getting the quickest and easiest judgment always leads to the optimal recovery of the debt, but often times the threat of judgment is a more effective tool than the judgment itself in causing a debtor to pay the debt or entering into a satisfactory settlement or payment agreement. Collection and enforcement of a judgment can be frustrating and time consuming, and a voluntarily agreement or resolution is almost always the most effective path towards recovery of the debt. When judgments are obtained quickly either by default or by consent, it frequently signals that the debtor might not have many assets or revenue sources to protect.

Any defendant can answer the judge’s questions at the return date in a manner that will effectively constitute a sufficient denial of the claim that will result in a trial being set. This trial date is usually months down the road, and if nothing else, this provides the defendant with time to make payments or time to try and work out a settlement agreement or payment plan to resolve the debt. For creditors and their counsel, the pending trial date and continuing threat of judgment provides great incentive for the defendant to resolve the debt, if possible.

We at PJI Law can provide advice and assistance to both creditors and debtors, both prior to litigation, during litigation and during the post-judgment collection period. Contact our office today at (703) 865-6100 to schedule an in-person or remote appointment.

Are You Being Called to Be a Witness in Court? Here’s How to Take the Stand

Except for expert witnesses and law enforcement officers who testify on a regular basis, most people are nervous about being a witness in a lawsuit. If you are called to be a witness, whether in a divorce, contract dispute, or any other type of case, there are certain things that you can expect to happen when you testify in court.

Court hearings are formal processes, so arrive early (beware of Northern Virginia traffic!) and dress professionally. When the proceedings start, the clerk may ask you to take an oath to tell the truth and the judge may then ask you to wait outside of the courtroom until you are called to the stand.

When it is your turn to testify, the attorney who called you as a witness will ask you questions first. Then, the other side’s attorney may ask you questions. It is not unheard of for the judge to ask questions as well. Your presence is important to tell a story that has an impact on the case at hand. Therefore, your credibility is key. You want the judge or jury to take you seriously and believe what you have to say. That means you must be clear and confident. Here are some tips to help you accomplish those objectives:

1. Take your time. Court proceedings take time and have serious consequences. Do not feel rushed by the person asking you questions. Feel free to take a breath between the question and the beginning of your answer. It is always better to think through what you want to say than to rush ahead. This is especially true if you are shown a document. Take the time to read it so that you are not caught off guard.

Going into the courtroom and taking the stand as a witness can be intimidating – but it doesn’t have to be.

2. You are in control. Just because you are the one answering the questions, you are not powerless. If an attorney or the judge mischaracterizes what you said, politely correct them. If you do not understand a question, ask the questioner to rephrase it. If you do not understand a word, ask for an explanation. Sometimes attorneys slip into using legal jargon out of habit. Not understanding a legal term does not say anything about your intelligence. Likewise, if you cannot hear the question, ask the questioner to speak up. You can only be asked to answer questions you hear and understand.

3. Tell the truth. The court only asks you to tell the truth. You may have answers you know the attorney will not like, but if it is the truth, it is your responsibility to tell it. Tell your story the way you remember it. That also means that if you do not know or remember something, then the truth is ‘I do not know’ or ‘I do not remember.’ Never guess.

4. The proceedings should be respectful. Again, court proceedings are formal. Just as the attorneys should not use sarcasm, inappropriate gestures, and condescending tones, neither should the witness. Unfortunately, sometimes people fall below the standards of decorum. Do not dignify their poor behavior with responses in kind. Also, do not speak over other people. If there is an objection, it is important for you to stop speaking and hear what the judge has to say.

5. Answer only the question asked. Don’t elaborate, and certainly don’t go off on tangents. This sounds simple, but we at PJI Law see this issue come up very often on all sides of cases. You may be inclined to elaborate or tell the story that you want to tell, however, it is best to keep your responses short and direct. If the questioner wants you to elaborate, they will ask you to do so. Remember, it is not your job to be the trial strategist and guess where the questioner wants you to go. Your only responsibility is to answer the questions asked. Otherwise, you may be doing the proceeding a disservice and you may lose credibility in the eyes of the court.

Being a witness in a court proceeding can be very stressful, but it is important to keep yourself collected and follow these simple guidelines.

Will a Jury Side with Me?

One of the issues we consider when assessing a case that may go to trial is: How would a jury see the case?

What many people don’t realize is that they (through their lawyers) can actually impact the jury’s perspective of the case in a manner even more fundamental than the attorney’s actual trial presentation. Before a jury trial, using a process called voir dire, lawyers for both sides get the opportunity to ask questions to a larger group of potential jurors assembled in the courtroom, and then to strike, or eliminate, some of them from being selected as jurors. This applies to all types of jury trials, including personal injury, car accident, and contract cases, among many others we might handle.

So on what basis can attorneys strike jurors? There are some limitations, but on the whole, lawyers have significant discretion in deciding who is struck. And here in Northern Virginia, the jury pool is always rich with people from various class, economic, and professional backgrounds with differing views on certain legal conflicts.

The New York Times has a very neat tool called “Will You Be Seated on a Jury?” Click here to access it. It asks you certain questions that may be asked in an actual voir dire session, and explains how your answers may cause one side to want to remove you from the eventual jury panel.

When it comes to your case, there is no way to know for sure what the jury will do, or whether it will side with you. But if your lawyer is diligent in shaping the jury itself, you may already be halfway there.