Although on television, court appearances are often portrayed as being easy breezy, in reality, it can actually be very daunting. After all, when your life, family, money, assets, or other things of importance are on the line, and a judge or jury is the one with the power to make decisions related to these important things, who wouldn’t be anxious about appearing in court? The more you understand about the court system, the more at ease you may feel. Here are a few things I think are important to know before you appear in family court for the first time.
- All appearances are not created equal
There are many different reasons you may have to appear in family court. When your case first starts, you may have to appear so that the court can issue temporary orders due to one party’s request. Or, you could have to appear to inform the court about the status of the case. Other reasons you may have to appear are to explain something to the court that they are unclear about, because one party is requesting a specific order for something, for mediation or settlement conferences, and of course, trial-if it gets to that point. Because there are so many different types of appearances, it’s important to know what exactly you are appearing for, to ensure that you are prepared.
- Courtrooms can be scary, even for some lawyers!
Believe it or not, if you’re anxious about your court appearance, you are not alone. From those who have no legal knowledge or experience to those who have been to court numerous times or have made legal practice their profession of choice, everyone has a moment of uneasiness. “Did I remember to do___?” “Do I have my_____ in my folder?” “Is this judge nice?” “Are my witnesses going to show up?” etc. cross the minds of many. Embrace it, and prepare for it.
- Be prepared
When appearing in court, preparation is vital. Aside from disobeying court orders, nothing will annoy a judge, court staff, or the opposing party/attorney more than being unprepared. It’s your case, it’s your responsibility to know all of the facts and have all of the documents to evidence those facts (unless you’re represented by an attorney, then you will provide that information to them). Be clear about what you want, because the court may ask you; don’t expect the judge or your attorney to read your mind. Often times the court’s decisions are made based on the request of the party that is the most practical solution. If you have documents, put them in a folder or other organizer and know exactly where they are so you can get to them quickly for reference or to provide them to the court. Be specific, know dates, times, locations, etc. it’s okay to take notes with you, just have the information.
- Listen, Watch, and Learn
Did you know that with the exception of a few closed cases, family law hearings are open to the public? When I was in law school, I used this to my full advantage – I frequented the courtrooms as a spectator. This was one of the best decisions made because I was able to just sit, listen, watch, and learn. I learned how the courtroom procedures worked. I listened to how cases were presented. I watched the judges, lawyers, and litigants and took notes on what “to do” and what “not to do.” Because of this, courtrooms weren’t completely foreign to me when I made my first appearance and I had an idea of what to expect. It’s worth it; look up your family court judge, take a day and just go sit in the courtroom and listen, watch, and learn.
- Remember that judges are human
Granted, they are humans with more power in the courtroom than the average layperson, but…the fact still remains that, at the end of the day, they are just like you. They have a life, family, things on their “to do” list, and more. So, although it’s easy to put them on a pedestal, just like you, they make mistakes, they have bad days, they get frustrated, they don’t understand, they are at work. Don’t walk into the courthouse expecting to appear before a supernatural human that can work magic…it doesn’t work like that.
- Remember your manners
I shouldn’t have to say this, but based on my frequent courtroom observation, I do. Remember your manners! It never ceases to amaze me that people disregard even the simple rules of common courtesy such as: Don’t interrupt someone when they’re speaking, wait until the other person is done talking before you speak, be respectful, refer to the judge as “Your Honor.” Without going into too much of a lecture, be mindful of your personal grooming and attire, etc. when appearing in court.
- If things don’t go your way, don’t panic
There are many remedies available for you if for some reason things don’t go your way. The fact of the matter is, when you are asking a court to make a decision that affects your life, they will not always get it right, as judges are strangers who know nothing about you, your family, your circumstances, or what’s best for you. The only thing the court is able to do is review the evidence that is presented to them (which may or may not always be the most accurate), and make a decision that they think is fair based on that evidence. Consequently, if even a little piece of evidence or information is missing, contradicted, or disputed, the outcome may not be in your favor. If this happens, don’t panic – relax, and understand that there are other options that may be available for you depending on your circumstances. In almost all cases, filing an appeal is an option. Additionally, you may be able to file a motion for reconsideration, or a request to modify the orders that were made.