Being involved in a family law matter, whether it is a divorce or child custody dispute, can be incredibly stressful. The best way to minimize that stress is to resolve the outstanding issues with minimal court time. But when one or both parties are unwilling to reach agreements then court time cannot be avoided.
Most parties tend to focus on the specific facts of their case and how the law applies, which is clearly important. However, another essential element of any court appearance is how the parties and their attorneys conduct themselves. This general advice about how parties should conduct themselves in Court applies to every kind of legal matter from divorce and custody issues to criminal charges to commercial litigation. However, it seems the issue of conduct and decorum most often arises in family law court where both the parties, and on occasion, the lawyers get caught up in the emotion of the case.
As a preliminary matter, everyone should arrive at the courthouse early and at least attempt to confer with the opposing party and/or their counsel. Sometimes the Court will specifically order the parties to arrive at a hearing thirty minutes early in order to meet and confer, but even if the parties are not ordered to arrive early it is a good idea to do so. Many issues, and sometimes whole cases, have been resolved outside the courtroom just before a hearing.
Even if the parties can‘t resolve their issues, most judges appreciate that the parties tried to do so. Further, being late can result in the hearing being cancelled and reset, or in extreme circumstances, with the Court issuing a default or order of contempt against the party that is not there on time. Arriving promptly for all hearings and trials also shows the Court that the parties respect the authority of the Court.
And, whether or not it should matter, how the parties look is also important. Some Courts have specific dress codes that do not allow parties to wear clothing items like hats, torn jeans or short skirts to Court. Generally speaking, parties should wear clothing that would be appropriate for a business meeting or church gathering.
In addition to showing up and showing up on time, manners and respect for the Court and the process are very important. To begin, the parties should stand when the Judge enters and leaves the courtroom and should address the Judge as “Your Honor.” Respect and courtesy in Court is important. Without such respect and courtesy, the hearings can quickly get out of hand.
Perhaps most importantly, beyond basic courtesies, the parties should conduct themselves appropriately any time they are before the Court. This includes things like not speaking out of turn, particularly when this involves interrupting the judge. Judges, like everyone else, do not like being interrupted. These interruptions cause undue delay, prolong hearings, escalate hostility and are very rarely insightful in any event.
The parties should refrain from using foul language. Likewise, the parties should not shout at one another, either of the attorneys, witnesses, and most certainly not the judge. The parties should refrain from arguing with the Judge or giving other confrontational non-verbal cues like rolling their eyes when the Judge, or the other party, speaks.
For the most part, these common sense courtesies should really go without saying but unfortunately, the lack of basic civility is all too common in family court. Due to the emotion, and the fact that this may be the one and only time the parties have ever been in court, they often misconstrue the purpose, the nature and the process. Parties far too often see the court hearing as a debate, a platform or some kind of cathartic release.
It is not. It is no more acceptable in court than outside. Unlike occasions outside the court, the judge has contempt powers which means a party can be arrested and taken into custody for misbehavior. This is relatively rare. What is much more common is that the behavior will alienate the judge. And this is something one does not want to do!
Part of an attorney‘s job is to try to manage their clients‘ behavior in front of the Judge so that the Judge sees that party in the most positive light possible. While such good behavior might not actually give one party an advantage, very poor behavior will definitely prejudice the Judge against the badly behaving party. After all, if parties cannot control themselves in court, the judge may wonder how they behave around the children in a custody situation. Then there are the close calls, and common sense will tell you who wins those!