This is part one of a three-part series about courtroom procedure and etiquette.
For many, the idea of “going to court” can be intimidating and nerve wracking. An appearance in court often involves difficult and important life circumstances. As lawyers, we often take for granted how infrequently most people appear in court since it is something many of us do on a regular basis.
Whether you are in court due to a custody or divorce matter affecting your family, a civil matter affecting your business or financial well-being, or a criminal matter affecting your personal liberties or rights as a victim, knowing what to expect and how to present yourself can reduce some of the stress and allow you to focus on presenting the best case.
To help reduce some of the stress associated with appearing in court, I have put together a three part series walking you through the process from before you arrive in the courthouse to when you walk out at the end of your hearing.
In this first part of the series, I will discuss the process from entering the courthouse to arriving at and entering the designated courtroom. Future posts will include information on who you can expect to be present in the courtroom and how to present yourself in appearance and speech.
Before you even arrive at the courthouse, it is a good idea to figure out what you are allowed to bring in with you. As an example, many courthouses do not allow anyone who is not a lawyer to bring cell phones into the facility. If you are unsure, you can check the courthouse website for that jurisdiction or ask your lawyer. It is important to know any restrictions so that you do not unexpectedly have to return to your car and potentially delay your arrival.
Speaking of delayed arrival, it is important to show up early. Not on time. Early. This is important for a few reasons. First, you do not want to keep a judge waiting. A judge’s impression of you is an important part of your case, and showing up late can negatively impact that impression. Second, it may take more time than you expect to get through security and find the correct courtroom. If your hearing begins first thing in the morning or right after lunch, you should expect there to be a line for security since that is usually when other parties and court personnel are arriving at the courthouse at the same time.
Typically, a security screening involves emptying your pockets, removing your belt, and walking through a metal detector. There are special requirements, depending on the courthouse, if you need to store a firearm since firearms are not allowed in any courthouse.
Before you get to the courthouse, you should know which courtroom to go to. You can usually look this up online or ask your attorney where to go. If you think you may have an issue finding the courtroom, it is a good idea to make arrangements to meet your attorney in the lobby of the courthouse so you can walk to the courtroom together.
Once you find the correct courtroom, it’s important to determine whether it is appropriate for you to enter the courtroom or whether you should wait to be invited in. In some situations, there is a member of the judge’s staff present in the hallway to check in the parties and let you know when you can enter the courtroom. If there is no staff person there and court is in session (in other words, the judge is on the bench), it may be more difficult to figure out whether it is an appropriate time to enter the courtroom. In this situation, you can quietly open the door and enter the courtroom, but be prepared to leave if directed to do so by court personnel.
Determining where to sit can be another challenge. Only attorneys and one representative for each party are typically permitted to sit in front of the bar. Remaining attendees must sit in the gallery. If in doubt, sit in the gallery and wait for your attorney to let you know where to sit. With respect to choosing the correct table, the plaintiff sits closest to the jury box.
Now that you have arrived in the courtroom and found your place, you’ll want to identify those present. In my next post, I will explain who you can expect to see in a courtroom and what their role is.