January 17, 2014 by sandyonyourside
The courtroom is a world of rituals and formalities. It’s one of the most formal places you’ll ever be. Knowing and observing basic courtroom etiquette signals to the judge that you respect the legal process, respect the judge’s role as the representative of the Rule of Law, and are serious about your case.
Every judge runs his or her courtroom differently, but here are some general suggestions that will serve you well any time you go before a judge, whether you have an attorney or not.
1. DO wear neat, clean clothes to court. Think “business casual.” Take off your hat, take off your sunglasses, turn off your cellphone. I hope this tip is obvious to you, but sadly, some people need to be reminded.
2. DO stand when the judge enters and leaves the room, and when you are speaking to the judge. If you aren’t sure whether you should sit or stand while the other side is speaking, ask the clerk, watch what others whose cases are ahead of you do, or ask the judge, “Your Honor, would you like me to continue standing?”
3. DO address the judge as “Your Honor.” It’s a sign of respect not so much to the individual person as to the judge’s function as the gatekeeper of the law. The “Your Honor” rule doesn’t apply if you are appearing before a court clerk or other non-judge official, as might happen in a small claims case or for a minor traffic offense. For those officials, you may use their title (“Ms. Clerk”) or their title and their name (“Clerk Wagner”). Again, if you’re unsure how to address the court official, watch what others in front of you do, or just ask.
4. DON’T ever talk over the judge. Ever. Talking over the judge is a sign of deep disrespect. Even when the judge is mistaken, keep quiet until he or she finishes and then ask permission to speak. If you’re the kind of person who tends to interrupt people when they talk, practice better listening skills before your court appearance.
5. DO keep your voice up and watch your language. Remember that the court reporter or recording device in the courtroom cannot record non-verbal gestures like nodding or pointing, so use your words. Speak in measured tones and avoid slang, cursing, accusations, sarcasm, eye-rolling, making faces, and other disrespectful behavior. Rude words and gestures to the judge or to your opponent signal to the judge that you don’t have much of a legal case, just a lot of bluster. The judge’s job isn’t to rule on the other side’s character or to shame them but to decide on the facts. The more factual your presentation, the more reasonable and unemotional you are, the more likely you’ll have the judge’s full, unvarnished attention. If you have trouble speaking in a non-emotional way, if the other party or the other party’s lawyer really gets under your skin, consider hiring a lawyer to do the talking for you, at least for the courtroom appearance.
6. DO prepare carefully. Especially your opening few sentences. Assume the judge hasn’t read any of your papers, even if you submitted them in advance. Assume the judge has only a short time in which to hear your case. Start off with the bumper sticker version of why you are in court, because you may not have the opportunity to say much more. In three sentences or less, introduce yourself, tell the judge what kind of case it is, why you’re in court, and what you want the judge to do. Here’s an example for the plaintiff. “Your Honor, my name is Sally Slug. I’m here today on a complaint of breach of contract against Sam Snail for shipping me a defective violin. I am asking the court to award me $1,000 in damages, which is what I paid Mr Snail for the violin, plus court costs.” For the defendant: “Your Honor, my name is Sam Snail. I deny liability because the damage to the violin was caused by Ms. Slug herself when she left it in a hot car. I’m asking the court to dismiss Ms. Slug’s lawsuit against me.”
7. DON’T hand papers or exhibits directly to the judge, unless the judge asks you to. The proper procedure is to hand papers and exhibits to the bailiff or the court officer, who then hands them to the judge. When you want to present papers to the court, make sure you have a copy for yourself and a copy for the other side.
8. DO leave quickly when your case is done. Don’t dawdle in front of the judge or make noise on your way out of the courtroom, even if you’re unhappy with the outcome.
Being polite and respectful in the courtroom, observing the formalities of coming before a judge, are easy ways to Take Control of Your Case.
‘Til next week,