SECRET LEGAL WISDOM

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The Importance Of Seeing The Court

 

Dropping in to observe court proceedings is an eye-opening experience. The speed of trial almost never fails to surprise and even discourage some visiting would-be litigants. They watch a room full of plaintiffs and defendants sitting idle and waiting in patience until the judge or the bailiff calls their case. Some disputes are over almost before they begin, with the judge acting almost like a mediator, issuing a few pointed questions to the parties about the particulars of the case, and ruling almost immediately after the answers are heard. Other cases take longer with formal exhibits and testimony.  

 

Courthouses often seem to buzz with activity not unlike a beehive or ant colony; lawyers and witnesses, and litigants and judges and law clerks, court attendants and court reporters; all rushing in and out, excusing themselves from this case so they can appear at that one. Some judges routinely interrupt one case to allow litigants and lawyers from another to approach the bench and briefly be heard to speed up the process of justice. 

 

Courtroom Diagram

 

Courtroom

 

 

 

Courtroom Etiquette

 

Ideally, your reconnoitering efforts will cut through some of this fog and familiarize you with the conventions and protocols practiced in the arena where your dispute will be decided. Schachner in his book, How And When To Be Your Own Lawyer (Avery publishing, 1993) likens these conventions to an actor’s “stage presence – that unspoken combination of demeanor and mannerisms, that magical something that articulates the aura of being special – [and] is important to capturing the audience’s respect and attention.” 

 

“In the theater of the courtroom, presence adds to the jurors’ respect for you and indirectly benefits your case.” [1]  

 

Put another way, your poise and self-confidence will benefit you as you become more familiar with the nuances and conventions of trial. Fortunately, most of the conventions of politeness and common courtesy will translate over to the courtroom. Parties are expected to be courteous to each other and the court. 

 

·       Always show up on the day your motion or hearing is scheduled (even if you intend to ask for a continuance) and ALWAYS be on time. If you intend to seek a continuance or postponement, try to work one out ahead of time. You can’t just call in to court on the day of trial and say you can’t make it. If you can’t make it due to some illness or emergency, try to send someone in your place. 

 

·       Parties should speak only to the judge or to witnesses they are examining during the course of trial. They should not address court clerks, bailiffs or other court personnel without the approval of the judge, nor should they address witnesses they are not examining (direct, cross, re-direct). Parties should not speak with each other during trial, but address all inquiries, objections, motions etc., to the judge. 

 

·       Always stand when you address the court and when responding to the court. It demonstrates proper respect for the court and proceedings and signals that you are self-composed and comfortable. 

 

·       Since the judge is the official presiding officer of the court, he, more than your opponent or even the jury is your audience, so always begin any address with “your honor.” When introducing a witness say “Your honor, I’d like to call Jane Doe…” or during your opening argument “Your honor, the preponderance of evidence will show that my opponent is clearly liable for my injuries…” Always end your exchanges, even those in which you’ve been speaking exclusively to another party – as when examining a witness, or presenting your closing argument to the jury – with “Thank you, your honor.”  

 

·       Also, request permission to move about the courtroom such as to request a sidebar conference, “Your honor, may we approach?” Or when you need to move closer to a witness, “Your honor, can I approach the witness?” 

 

·       When you need to address the jury, begin with “May it please the court…” 

 

·       During questioning, remember that witnesses can sometimes be unpredictable. Avoid hammering or appearing to badger or mistreat any witness, yours’ or your opponents’. When a witness nods or mumbles or shakes his head, be the first to ask the witness to speak up so the court can hear. And make sure your not just speaking or asking questions to fill up some awkward silence. Make sure you know what you want to say, before you begin speaking. 

 

Find out as much as you can about the judge who is assigned to preside over your case. Try to sit in on a few of his cases to develop a better feel for his demeanor and professional style. Every judge is different. Some respond patiently to irritations others might not put up with at all. Inquire about his or her temperament likes and dislikes during your intelligence gathering trips to the courthouse. Talk to a law clerks and lawyers who know him. Introduce yourself and briefly ask one or two specific questions that may help you get a better bead on the personality of the person under the robes.  

 

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