Courtroom Etiquette for Non-Lawyers
The purpose of this article is to share proper courtroom etiquette for non-lawyers and to encourage a healthy respect for the judicial system and its participants. A courtroom is a place of professional business, and how you arrive to conduct that business says a lot about you. It’s amazing to see the number of people dressed inappropriately, being disrespectful, and talking so loud that it’s only a matter of time before trouble starts.
When going to court, wear appropriate clothing. You don’t have to wear a suit; a clean pair of khakis and a polo shirt would work just fine. If you have just come from work or are going to work and are wearing your work uniform, just explain that to the court. Generally, our judges understand and value people who work— especially in this economy. Do not wear a hat, unless it’s for a religious reason, into the courtroom; it’s an instant sign of disrespect. If you are a woman, a skirt or dress that falls below the knee and is not tight-fitting, sequined, or revealing is appropriate.
Avoid the overly casual look of long shorts, tank tops, wife beaters, flip-flops, and wild hair-dos. Some judges have been known to ask people to leave their courtroom because they are inappropriately dressed; others have been known to ask that a woman cover themselves with a sweater, jacket, or other covering if her attire is inappropriate. Your hair, nails, and body should be properly groomed and colognes should be kept to a minimum. Because you will usually be required to talk to the judge, bailiff, or your own attorney, good oral hygiene is necessary for everyone’s comfort. I know some of you who are reading this are thinking that this stuff is the norm and this article should start with other details.
All I can say is that this should be common sense but, sometimes, common sense is not so common. When your court day arrives, be a bit early and prepared. Even if you have to wait, it’s better than finding that your case has already been called and a warrant has been issued because you’re late! Generally, children should not accompany you to court unless it’s an emergency and you have no one else to keep them. If you must bring them to court, make sure they are not disruptive; remember, you are there to handle business—not your children! Before going into the courtroom, check the negative attitude at the door.
When you do, make sure you get rid of the disrespectful/don’t care attitude, the neck-rolling, the loud sighing, and other forms of inappropriate expression. That kind of behavior starts you off behind the curve, and you’ll have to run hard get where you could’ve been if you had checked your attitude at the door. Besides getting on everyone’s nerves, it’s also one of the fastest ways to land in jail “for not doing anything”. Try explaining that to the bailiff, your friends, and anybody else that watches as you are hauled off! When going into a courtroom, make sure you first speak to the clerk. They are generally your first point of contact with the court, and making a positive first impression with them can go a long way. That’s true whether you have an attorney or not!
At court, be clear on your role and the roles others play in the system. Whether you are a victim, witness, or are being prosecuted, everyone has a role. In the judicial system, people’s role and their job are often the same. Judges, State’s Attorneys, and bailiffs all have a job to do. Since our judges, state’s attorneys and bailiffs live in neighborhoods, participate in the community, and probably went to school in the area, there is a big chance that you may know some of them.
Even though that’s the case, you should show them the respect they deserve while on their job. Bailiffs are there to keep order and to ensure safety—and they take their jobs seriously. Don’t be surprised if they firmly instruct you to do something; that’s just part of the job. The best thing to do is to listen and follow directions. State’s Attorneys and Assistant State’s Attorneys prosecute matters on behalf of the community; it’s their job.
Sometimes, they might not agree with prosecuting a particular case; however, it’s their job. Judges enforce the law in the State of Illinois and deserve respect for the job they do. One way to show them that respect is to address the judge as “Your Honor”; another is to avoid becoming over-familiar with them. It sends the wrong message to everyone and will force the judge to give the case to a judge you don’t know—so that everyone has a fair chance.
When you hear your case called, go to the podium and face the judge. When talking, use plain English, not slang. Remember not to interrupt or argue with anyone because a judge—and a recording device—can only hear one person at a time. When talking or stating your side, just describe the case using your inside voice. Don’t talk in a loud and demeaning way to or about the other side. Even if they are wrong, it often hurts the case for you to bad-mouth the other side.
It’s okay to point out inaccuracies, but let the judge do his or her work; generally, they know when someone is telling the truth or not. You don’t have to jump all over them if they are untruthful or intentionally misleading. Simply point out the inaccuracies—without the negativity—and your point has been made. Doing it that way shows a level of sophistication that courts tend to appreciate.
The suggestions contained in this article are only a starting point for courtroom etiquette for non-lawyers. Depending on the reason you are in court, the kind of case in which you are involved, and whether you are represented by an attorney, other courtesies may be due. However, by employing proper courtroom etiquette, you put yourself in a good position to be respected by the court and its personnel. And, that’s always a positive start to a day in court.