How to Survive Your Family Law Court Hearing
On TV, court is often portrayed as dramatic, or even glamorous. In reality, court is a formal and serious environment and being unprepared can have dire consequences for your case.
Arrive 15 Minutes EarlyArrive early before your court appearance to avoid delays in travel, time to find parking, and to meet with your attorney before court. Courtroom policies can vary slightly between departments, and some Judges will continue or "trail" your case to a later calendar, or even decide the case without your presence if you are late.
When the courtroom opens, be sure to:
1. Check the docket (list with the court cases on it) and note which number your case is
2. Remove hats, sunglasses
3. Sit quietly, and if possible, on the opposite side of the waiting area from the opposing party
4. Pay attention when the bailiff or court clerk calls roll - you will want to make sure that you answer
Turn Off Cell Phone / Electronic DevicesTurn your phone on silent and turn off notifications (i.e., use "sleep mode" or similar) to avoid flashing lights and sounds. Nearly all courthouses prohibit the use of electronic devices in the courtroom. If you have evidence to present in electronic form, such as texts on screen, print before court and bring copies for yourself, the judge, and opposing counsel / party.
Be Courteous and Respectful to the Court, Opposing Parties, and StaffLocal court rules require professionalism and civility in court from all parties and their attorneys.
Keep these rules for best practices in mind:
-Refer to the judge or commissioner as "your honor"
-Do not interrupt
-Plaintiff / Petitioner presents their case first, and Defendant / Respondent presents their case next. In most instances there will be opportunity for the petitioner to rebut
-Speak clearly and slowly
-You may object to testimony and evidence offered
-Actively listen to testimony and the judge's instructions / questions
-Answer the Questions Asked
-Do not convey disrespect by rolling your eyes, sighing, or grumbling
Being courteous and respectful also improves your credibility. Scoffing at a witness's testimony or interrupting the judge are disrespectful, and harm your credibility before the court.
Dress ProfessionallyDress as if you are going to a business job interview. Your clothes should be clean and tidy (i.e., no wrinkles, stains), and modest. Inappropriate attire includes: sandals, shorts, sleeveless shirts, hats, and jeans.
Although not required, covering tattoos is a good idea because it eliminates distractions that may detract from your message to the court.
Be Prepared to Argue Your CaseIf you are representing yourself, you will need to present what and why you are asking the court to take action in your case.
At a minimum, you should:
-Know the legal requirements you have to meet
-Review the state and local rules of court to ensure your pleadings (documents) meet their requirements
-Have documentary evidence to corroborate verbal statements (this is not always possible, but is a good strategy)
-Know the facts in your case
-Have answers for "devil's advocate" type questions that challenge your reasoning and actions taken
-Take your court file and pleadings with you, especially any proofs of service
Be HonestPerjury is a crime, and severely harms your credibility, which in turn can harm your case with severe consequences.
When in doubt, be honest with the court rather than making up facts. Simply state "I do not recall" or "I am not sure" rather than making up details, or jumping to conclusions. State what you do know. For example, if you are asked when a certain event happened and you do not recall the date specifically, you may state the year and month if you recall those details, then generally describe what day it occurred on. For example, "This happened in July 2013, your honor. I do not recall the exact date, but it was on a Friday." That is far more persuasive than arbitrarily making up facts, and avoids perjury.
Wait for the Court's OrderAfter the hearing, the Judge will likely issue a minute order or findings and order after hearing. In some jurisdictions such as Yolo County Family Court, this is done electronically and is available immediately following the hearing. In other courts, parties and their attorneys must wait 10-30 minutes for the court order to be finalized.