This guide will help you understand what happens in a courtroom. It will give you tips on what to know, say and do to make the most of your time.
In the courtroom, there are a things you should do, things you have to do and things you must never do. Knowing the difference isn’t easy, especially if you’re going to court for the first time. This guide should take some of the mystery out of the courtroom experience and let you know more about what's expected of you.
Before your court hearing
Here are four things you should do before your court hearing.
- Take the day off work. A day in court can last all day. Let your boss know you'll need the entire day off and find someone to watch your kids. You shouldn't bring your kids with you to court.
- Figure out how to get there. Your court summons will include the address, building and room number of your hearing. Check the bus schedule or directions days ahead of time to make sure you will know how to get there. If you're planning to drive, make sure you know where you will park.
- Plan what you're going to wear. You might be tempted to wear clothes that make you feel comfortable. But when you go to a hearing, you should wear the kind of clothes that you would wear to an important job interview. That means no jeans, sweatpants, flip-flops or t-shirts, if you can help it. Wear a nice blazer, tie or blouse instead.
- Call the clerk if you have questions. The clerk will not be able to give you legal advice. But the clerk can give you helpful information, such as where you should park your car and what forms you'll need to fill out or bring with you.
When you get to court
Here are four things that you should do to make sure you're in the courtroom and ready for your hearing to start.
- Find where your hearing is. As soon as you get to court, locate where your hearing is. If you can’t find the room, ask the clerk. At the courtroom, there will be an area to sit or stand while you wait for your case to be called. Ask a court employee if you're not sure where to wait.
- Go into the courtroom early. At least 10 minutes before your scheduled hearing time, you should be in the courtroom, not the hallway. If you're not in the room when your case is called, you might lose.
- Check in with the bailiff. You should especially do this if you arrive late.
- Show respect. In a courtroom, that means listening carefully to all court staff. It also means standing when the judge enters and leaves. When you speak to the judge, you should always call them “Your Honor,” or, if your case is being heard by a magistrate, call them “Sir” or “Ma’am.”
Things you should never do
The courtroom is a formal place. Here are four things you should never do.
- Don't show up late. On the day of your hearing, it’s very important to arrive early. You will need to walk through a metal detector and put your belongings through an x-ray machine before you’re allowed into the courthouse. Depending on how busy things are, the security line can take a while.
- Don't use your phone. You will not be able to use your phone, computer or any other device in the courtroom. Leave those items in your car or at home, if you can.
- Don't interrupt. It's important to be polite to everyone in the courthouse. Whether before, during or after your hearing, you must carefully listen to what you're told. In the hearing, never interrupt the judge, magistrate or anyone that's talking. You must wait until it’s your turn. Learn more about how to speak in court.
- Don’t be afraid to ask. If the clerk, judge, magistrate or anyone else says something or asks you something that you don't understand, ask them to explain what they mean.
In the hearing
When your case is called, you will go to the front of the courtroom to get sworn in. You will be asked to raise your right hand. The person doing the swearing in will say:
“Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
In some courts, they’ll use the word “affirm” instead of “swear.”
Your answer should be, “I do.” And that is what you must do: tell the truth. If you don’t and the court finds out, you will end up in a lot of trouble.
The person who filed the case will present their case first. That means they will be able to tell their side of the story by calling witnesses and presenting evidence. For each witness, both sides have a turn to ask their questions. It's important not to interrupt or speak when it's someone else's turn. Learn more about working with witnesses.
You must follow specific rules of the court to show that your evidence is important to your case. Learn more about how to present evidence.
After both sides have told their side of the story, the judge will either make a decision right away or take it “under advisement.” That means the judge will think about what their decision will be, outside of the courtroom, and let you know later.
When the decision is made, the judge will issue an order.
Here's your final must do: follow the order. A judge's order is binding. That means you will have to do what the order says, even if you don’t agree with it.