Few people have direct contact with the court system beyond jury duty or possibly some experience in a municipal court. Therefore, what little they know about courtroom behavior is usually derived from what they have see on television, which is not necessarily an accurate depiction of courtroom etiquette. Therefore, litigants often either have questions or need some kind of instruction before appearing in court about what to expect and how to behave in a courtroom setting. It is an important consideration. After all, you want to create the best impression you can on the judge who may be making important decisions affecting your life.
Here are some worries people have before they appear in court the first time:
What Should I Wear to Court?
You want to show respect to the Court. You should talk to your lawyer before the court appearance to see if your attorney wants you to dress in a particular way. In general, however, you should dress neatly and conservatively. I would suggest avoiding clothes such as sneakers, flip-flops, shorts, yoga pants or other work out wear, sweat pants, jeans, tank tops, sleeveless shirts, or t-shirts.
When Should I Arrive to Court?
Coordinate with your lawyer when you want to meet in advance of court and make sure that you know how to get there, where to park, and what courtroom to go to. While judges tend to be fairly understanding of the traffic snarls and weather that delay commuting times, strive to be on time. Factor in not only time to park your car, but also to pass through the screenings at the metal detectors in every courthouse, where long lines can form. If the courthouse you are going to has elevators, there are often lines for court employees, lawyers and litigants at the elevators in the mornings. Therefore, strive to arrive at least 15 minutes before court is scheduled to begin in order to make certain that you make it to the courtroom on time. Keep in mind that even if you are on time, that does not mean that you will not have to wait. The judge is usually handling more than one matter that day and you might have to wait your turn. You do not want to miss instructions or statements that the judge might make when he or she takes the bench, and you want to avoid your case not being ready to proceed when the judge calls your case.
Are There Behaviors That I Should Avoid?
There are behaviors that you want to avoid doing. For instance, when the judge is on the bench speaking or addressing a case that is not yours, the judge will not want to be distracted. Therefore, judges dislike it when there is a lot of discussion among other people in the courtroom, no matter how quiet they try to be. While waiting for your case to be called, sit quietly in the courtroom. Generally, discussions should be had outside of the courtroom.
Do not chew gum. If you do, the court’s staff is likely to speak out. Also, you should not be eating or drinking anything in the courtroom. Some judges allow you to bring a bottle of water. Some do not. But you cannot come into the courtroom with coffee or other beverage or any food.
Many people do not utilize cell phone etiquette in the courtroom. You are not permitted to receive or make any cell phone calls in the courtroom. Your phone should be turned completely off, or at the very least set to “silent”. Some judges do not even like to hear a cell phone vibrate. It is a tremendous distraction to the court to hear cells phones ringing and binging when calls, emails, tweets, and texts arrive. Some judges become very annoyed. Also, keep in mind that you cannot use your cell phone as a recording device in the courtroom or as a camera. Judges vary on use of a cell phone even when it is not making sound, such as to check a calendar, read an email or send a text message. It’s probably better to be safe than sorry and not use your cell phone at all in the courtroom. Turn it off and put it away. If you need to use your cell phone, leave the courtroom and use it in the hallway.
Will I Have To Talk?
Unless your proceeding is a trial and you are testifying, it is not likely that you will have to speak if you have an attorney. Usually the judge will want to speak with the attorneys, and will do so one at a time. Generally, you should not speak during the proceeding unless your attorney or the judge is asking you to answer a question.
If you do address the judge, the judge should be addressed as “Your Honor” or you can use “Sir” or “Ma’am” when speaking with the judge. Certainly “please” and “thank you” is appreciated. Generally, if you are polite to the judge it is appreciated and he or she will be polite in return.
Who Is Going To Be There?
In addition to the judge, the parties and the lawyers, there are going to be other people in the courtroom observing the proceedings. First, some litigants forget that court proceedings are almost always public proceedings and, therefore, it is likely that there will be observers. Usually, in Family Court the observers are litigants and attorneys waiting for their cases to be called. Second, some of the the judge’s staff and court personnel are going to be present. The Family Court always has at least one sheriff’s officer present. The judge will also have a court clerk there who will be handling the recording equipment and some paperwork. The judge’s law clerk may also be present.
Who Is Going To Be Observing Me and What Behaviors Should I Avoid?
Obviously the judge is observing the litigants’ demeanor. The judge is making determinations as to credibility and reliability and trying to determine from the litigants’ demeanor what is motivating them. So the judge needs to observe your demeanor during your trial testimony.
However, even when you are not testifying or when the proceeding is not a trial, the judge is still observing and estimating your demeanor, and drawing conclusions about you. Therefore, when your spouse or another witness is testifying, or when any of the lawyers are engaging in discussions with the judge, the judge may still be observing and assessing your demeanor. Consequently, you should strive to avoid rolling your eyes, slamming down papers, laughing at your spouse or your spouse’s lawyer or another witness, or any other smirk, sigh, groan, et cetera. Do not assume that the judge does not see this behavior even if she or he does not address it (which the judge might), and do not assume that the judge does not care if it is occurring. Judges generally do not think well of those who engage in this behavior and it reflects negatively upon you.
There are other behaviors that litigants tend to engage in that should be avoided. When your lawyer is speaking, do not shout at your lawyer, tug on his or her sleeve or repeatedly interrupt your lawyer. Not only is that a distraction to your lawyer’s thinking and speaking, but the judge is observing this and it is distracting to the judge. If you need to speak to your lawyer during the proceeding, write a note and pass the note to your lawyer. Also, avoid any outbursts at the judge, at the lawyers, or at your spouse. Again, have discussions outside of the courtroom.
In that vein, keep in mind that when you are in the courtroom you may be observed even when the judge is not on the bench. While you are in the courtroom there are undoubtedly going to be court personnel and members of the judge’s staff in the courtroom. People being people, they may be inclined to talk among themselves about what they observe or what happens in the courtroom. You do not not want to engage in behavior even when the judge is not in the courtroom where the court personnel might make comments that can be overhear by a judge.
In short, you simply want to behave in a way that is courteous and polite. Court matters are to be civil proceedings and you should thus behave in a civil manner. The court has its business to do and you want to show respect to the court and you do not want to be a distraction. Finally, and most importantly, you really want to create the best impression of yourself to the judges, who are only human after all, and who are going to be making big decisions that affect your life and likely the lives of your children.
The Law Office of James P. Yudes is happy to assist you on all court matters and helping you through what can be a difficult process.