Administrative hearings can look a lot like a trial. There is a judge. Witnesses are called to the stand and they testify under oath. Both sides get to ask questions. Exhibits can be presented.
But there are also important ways that the hearing is different from most trials. First, the judge is an administrative law judge. That means that he or she is an employee of the same agency that you are going up against and not part of a separate and independent branch of government. There is also generally no jury, although some matters do have a panel of professionals who hear the matter.
One of the most important differences is that hearsay is generally admissible. Under the Administrative Procedure Act, hearsay may be admitted if “it is the kind of evidence on which reasonably prudent persons are accustomed to rely in the conduct of their affairs.” RCW 34.05.452(1). The practical reason for this rule, and the benefit for the agency, is that it allows the Department’s investigators to testify about all of the evidence they gathered during the course of their investigation. The other justification for the rule, and the benefit for the licensee, is that it allows non-attorneys to represent themselves in administrative hearings, which are meant to be more informal than trials. The pitfall is that the very same “informality” in the proceedings can be used by the Department’s representative, who is an Assistant Attorney General, to the agency’s advantage to get information before the judge that may or may not be appropriate. Remember: If you decide to appear without an attorney, that does not mean that the agency will be unrepresented too.