Conference Versus Hearing Versus Trial

Perspective clients for divorce and family law cases tend to confuse me by using the wrong terminology.  I have learned not to rely on the clients use of terminology and probe deeper to find out what is really meant.  So, this article will address the correct usage of the terms most often misused by clients in divorce, child custody, child visitation and support cases.

When a court date is first scheduled for an appearance, it is not a “hearing date” or “trial date” unless it is specifically stated as such.  The scheduled date to appear in court is a conference.  There are many types of conferences, preliminary, status, compliance and certification and pretrial. But as the client, you do not need to know or say more than “conference.”  So, when you meet with a lawyer to retain him or her, and you say you have a hearing date on such and such date, it is believed the case has been pending for some time and is now ready for trial.  But if it is the first time on, then nothing has occurred yet.

A hearing and a trial may seem like they are the same thing, but technically they are not.  In Supreme Court, a trial is held to hear and determine all issues for a final decision of the entire case.  In Supreme Court a hearing is held to determine a motion if not decided on papers alone, and to decide temporary issues pending the trial.  In Family Court, only hearings are held.  But for all other intents and purposes, they are the same thing.

A hearing or trial is when witnesses are sworn in and lawyers (or pro se litigants) actually question the witnesses, both direct examination and cross-examination, and evidence is presented.  Direct examination is when you put your case forward and cross-examination is when you try to find holes in the other side’s case.

Your first day in court, is almost always a conference and almost never a hearing. The one most common exception is when you go in Family or Supreme Court seeking an order of protection. A mini hearing may be held, and if the other side appears, a full hearing may be held.  So, if you are unsure, just say it is the first