How to Behave in Court

Going to court can be intimidating. Not only is it likely an unfamiliar environment, but if you have to go to court, chances are you have something important at stake. In a family law case that could be custody (now called allocation of parental rights) or visitation (now called parenting time) of your children, whether or not you were married, the amount of support you will pay or receive, or the terms of your divorce. It’s natural to be emotional, anxious, and even on edge.

That said, the courtroom is not always the place to give expression to your feelings. The judge or magistrate is paying attention not only to the testimony that you give under oath, but to how you conduct yourself in court. Your behavior provides clues about things that matter to the court, especially in cases involving children. Are you honest? Reliable and responsible? Do you respect authority? Do you exhibit self-awareness and self-control?

Fortunately, it is not difficult to learn proper courtroom etiquette. You don’t have to have a great deal of education or a fancy wardrobe to make a positive impression on the court. You just have to be aware of a few simple rules and ensure that you follow them.

Dress Appropriately and Show Up on Time

If you were going to a good friend’s wedding or a job interview, you would dress appropriately for the occasion out of respect, even if that meant wearing clothes you wouldn’t ordinarily choose. You should do the same when going to court. In general, that means dressing fairly conservatively.

You don’t need to wear a suit, but your clothes should be clean, free from holes and rips, and not revealing—no tank tops, short hemlines, low-cut necklines, or anything tight-fitting. Clothing for court shouldn’t have messages on it, especially not messages referring to sex, violence, or drug use. Plan ahead for what you will wear to court; if you are not sure your planned outfit is suitable, ask your attorney. A shirt with a collar or a blouse, and pants or a skirt, is generally appropriate.

Showing up on time is also important. If you are not on time, your case may be dismissed or your hearing rescheduled, or the other side may be allowed to proceed with their case without you. In addition to those possibilities, showing up late suggests that you don’t respect the court and that you are not reliable. If the court is deciding custody of your child, you do not want to appear unreliable. If you are worried about traffic, parking, or public transportation, build in extra time so that you can arrive at court on time and as calm as possible.

Maintain Your Composure

Staying unruffled is important in court, especially in a family law case. The fact that you are in court almost always means that there is someone opposing you. That person, or their attorney, may say things that you believe are not true or they may make false accusations against you. They may even be hoping to provoke you into an angry response that will make you look out-of-control or unstable in front of the judge or magistrate.

Don’t fall for it. Even if an angry response would be justified, it will not help you. If you are on the witness stand and are tempted to yell or shout back, don’t be afraid to take a moment to calm down. You don’t have to answer immediately. Take a deep breath. Count to ten inside your head, hear your answer inside your head before your mouth starts to answer. If you need a tissue or a bathroom break, ask for it. When you open your mouth to speak, do so as calmly as possible, and without calling names or using inappropriate language. The words you choose and the tone you use can make a difference to your case.

If you are not on the witness stand, do not respond to anything that is being said by the questioning attorney, the judge, or the witness who is being questioned. Do not fiddle with your phone, laptop or tablet. Do not make noise with paper and pens. Making an outburst hurts your case and may even get you held in contempt of court. Outbursts of anger are your enemy and are bad courtroom behavior.

Watch Your Body Language

While it is true that it really isn’t fair and it does not change the facts of your case, impressions do count, and you want the Judge or Magistrate to see you as fitting their perceptions of someone who is mature, responsible, and believable. Judges and magistrates are people, too, subject to first impression foibles, just like the rest of us.  First impressions are lasting ones.  The hearing officer’s first impression will be based on how you appear, at first glance, and will set the tone for how you are perceived throughout the case.  Showing proper respect for the Court will lead to the Court respecting you.

Your mouth isn’t the only part of you that speaks; sometimes, body language speaks louder than words. Sitting up straight makes you look attentive and respectful (and helps you focus). Avoid crossing your arms; that makes you look defensive. Similarly, don’t clench your fists, which suggests barely-controlled anger. And of course, be mindful of your facial expressions. Don’t stare or glare, give side-eye, or frown. If you need to look at someone, look at your attorney.

Communicate Clearly

You are in court to tell your side of the story in your family law case. To do that effectively, you need to have clear, but concise, verbal communication. Remember that the hearing is probably being recorded, and can later be transcribed. You don’t want to make jokes or be sarcastic. Not only may that come off as disrespectful, but attempts at humor may not come across in the transcript of the hearing.

Answer questions factually and briefly. Listen to the question before answering and don’t answer more than is being asked.

Project Respect

The most general, and the most important, advice we can give you about courtroom behavior is to project an image of respect. There are many ways to do this, some of which we have already covered. Be appropriately dressed and punctual. Don’t eat, drink, or chew gum in court. Be attentive. Don’t talk unless you are being questioned. Be polite. Don’t be disruptive or aggressive. Follow the hearing officer’s instructions. Don’t cause distractions. And keep your phone off. Not on vibrate or silent mode—off. If you are worried a child or family member will need to contact you while you’re in court, try to designate someone else as a contact for them during that time.

The fact of the matter in a court case is that the judge or magistrate has the power to affect your future and your children’s future. Talking back or showing disrespect may be satisfying for a moment, especially when you believe you’re being wronged, but doing so WILL backfire on you. Trust your attorney to respond to anything inappropriate done or said by another party, attorney, or even the judge.

If you have questions about courtroom etiquette, what to say, or how to act, contact Melissa Graham-Hurd & Associates to schedule a consultation.