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Courtroom

Family Law courthouses are “conflict resolution” centers. They are where we go when we can’t agree. Courtrooms are where we tell our side of the story.

Courtrooms have people there who know what they’re doing. There’s a judge, a court reporter, a court clerk, lawyers, and sometimes a bailiff or deputy.

Courtrooms also host people who are unfamiliar with the room and are anxious about being there. There are litigants or “parties,” witnesses, and friendly or hostile onlookers.

Courtrooms are places where emotions bubble up, and sometimes erupt. The stakes are often high, so the emotions are, too. Anxiety, sadness, and anger live in courtrooms.

Courtrooms are full of unfamiliar rules. They are new to you, and are confusing. But they are intended to assure fairness.

Courtrooms are expensive. Trials and hearings are usually “the big event.” Accordingly, lawyers spend many hours preparing for them; and, with lawyers, of course, time is money. Your money.

Courtrooms mean you’ve lost control. You are no longer shaping the outcome of your case, your conflict. The judge will do that for you, and you’ll have to live with the decision he or she imposes.

Courtrooms are places you should try to avoid.

Common Questions About Family Law Courtrooms

How should I act in court?

When in the courtroom, you should act with a pleasant demeanor. You should be nice, civil, still, and respectful.

During court,  don’t be reactive. Parties disagree with the other party’s testimony and positions, and with the other attorney’s comments and arguments. That’s a given. You don’t need to communicate your disagreement by outbursts, audible “under the breath” comments, gestures, or reactions. Judges’ days are filled with that kind of huffing and puffing, and they don’t like it.

Additionally, don’t monopolize your attorney’s attention. Passing him or her the occasional—very occasional—helpful note is one thing. Persistent whispering and note-passing to your attorney, however, is not helpful. Your attorney is intensely watching and listening to the judge, the witness, and the other attorney. That’s what you want him or her to do. Don’t distract them!

Overall, behave with courtesy and be polite to everyone in the room, including your attorney, judge, court staff, and the other party.

How should I dress for court?

Dress as nicely as you are comfortable with. If you’re a “suit guy,” wear a suit. If you’re not comfortable in a suit, then don’t. “Business casual” is acceptable on the low end of the spectrum. If you can do better than that, do. Jeans, t-shirts, tank tops, shorts, anything strapless, all are inappropriate. Courtrooms are conservative, formal, places where you want to make a good impression and show respect.

In my custody case, should I bring my kids to court?

Unless your lawyer tells you to bring your kids, no, don’t do it. Judges want to insulate children from their parents’ legal wranglings. If the kids don’t need to testify, your judge may actually be troubled by your bringing them.

Additional Courtroom Questions & Answers

Dress as nicely as you are comfortable with. If you’re a “suit guy” wear a suit. If you’re not comfortable in a suit, then don’t. “Business casual” is acceptable on the low end of the spectrum. If you can do better than that, do. Jeans, t-shirts, tank tops, shorts, anything strapless, all are inappropriate. Courtrooms are conservative, formal, places, where you want to make a good impression and show respect.

Clothing:

  • Sleeveless or muscle shirt
  • Exercise outfit
  • Nothing sexy or too dressy; tight tops; short skirts; sequins; slinky top; revealing tops, nothing you'd wear out on a Saturday night!
  • Sundress or strapless dress
  • Crop tops. Cover your belly button
  • Any top with spaghetti straps
  • T-shirts (especially ones with beer, drug or sexual references)
  • Anything you’d wear to the zoo or to do yardwork
  • Athletic attire, especially baseball caps
  • Jeans, unless they are the only long pants you own
  • Clothing that is too small or too large
  • Clothing that reveals your underwear
  • Hats
  • Shorts or cut-offs

(Most Courts will NOT allow you to enter the courtroom if you are wearing shorts.)

Footwear:

  • Flip-flop sandals
  • Athletic shoes
  • High heel spikes
  • Open-toed shoes
  • Anything you'd wear at the beach
  • Lots of jewelry, especially if it makes noise when you move.
  • Sunglasses, unless medically prescribed

Hair:

  • Wet & messy
  • Dirty
  • Unnatural dye job
  • Hairnet and/or curlers
  • Weird or unusual haircut

Hygiene:

  • Look dirty or unshaven
  • Cologne and perfume. Use very little. Too much and everyone will wonder what you are trying to cover up!
  • Smelling like cigarette smoke
  • Smelling like pot. That's a totally different problem!
  • Smelling of alcohol. Again that's a totally different problem!
  • Nails - extremely long nails on both men & women, neon or bright nail polish.

Tattoos & Piercings:

  • Hide the tattoos.
  • Remove the excessive jewelry BEFORE entering the courtroom.
  • Bare legs or shoulders showing

How to prepare will change from case to case, issue to issue, person to person. Follow your lawyer’s advice. Generally, though, being familiar with any affidavits or other written statements you’ve made is always a good idea.

Again, your attorney’s advice may differ but, usually, 15 minutes early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.

Unless they need to testify, we usually don’t recommend bringing extra people. More people just means more people for your lawyer to have to manage, more people to huff and puff at the opposing party, more people to get in the way. There’s no need to make these events circuses and public displays. Privacy is okay.

Again, unless your lawyer tells you to bring your kids, no, don’t do it. Judges want to insulate children from their parents’ legal wranglings. If the kids don’t need to testify, your judge may actually be troubled by your bringing them.

Depending on the type of proceeding, courts usually hear from kids in three different ways: (1) They may appoint someone to visit with a child or children and write a report; (2) A child might submit an “affidavit”—a sworn, written statement—prepared by one of the lawyers; or (3) a child may testify, either in the judge’s chambers or in open court.

Parents have the right to be in the room when their children testify. Most parents understand how difficult it is for children to testify in their presence, however; they consent to the kids testifying out of their presence.

Most courtrooms have two tables, one for each party. Most of those tables have two chairs, one for the party, the other for the attorney. The attorneys typically take the inside chairs, and sit closest to one another. The clients typically take the outside chairs, and sit furthest from one another.

Yes. Be nice. Be civil. Be respectful. Be still. Put on a pleasant demeanor.

Yes. Don’t be reactive. Parties disagree with the other party’s testimony and positions, and with the other attorney’s comments and arguments. That’s a given. You don’t need to communicate your disagreement by outbursts, audible “under the breath” comments, gestures, or reactions. Judges’ days are filled with that kind of huffing and puffing, and they don’t like it.

And don’t monopolize your attorney’s attention. Passing him or her the occasional—very occasional—helpful note is one thing. Persistent whispering and note-passing to your attorney, however, is not helpful. Your attorney is intensely watching and listening to the judge, the witness, and the other attorney. That’s what you want him or her to do. Don’t distract them!

Yes. Approaching the witness stand is perhaps the only part of the courtroom experience movies and TV shows get right. As you approach the witness stand, the clerk, or sometimes the judge, will ask you to stop, raise your hand, and affirm that “you promise to tell the truth, and only the truth, so help you God.”

In the courtroom, you address the judge as “Your Honor.” Judges are not Mr., Miss, Ms., you, Carol, Walter, or anything else. They are “Your Honor,” and that’s that.

Courtrooms inspire emotion, so people cry in the courtroom every day.  Judges, clerks, stenographers, and lawyers are all used to it. It’s okay. If you can continue testifying through the emotion, just power through. If not, everyone will patiently and respectfully wait for you to regain your composure.

Yes. Here are ten tips:

  1. Tell the Truth: Don’t Argue: Don’t duck or dodge. Don’t juke or jive. Don’t spin. Tell it like it is, in your own words, as best you can.

  2. Listen Carefully, to the Whole Question: Witnesses can be so anxious to answer questions that they don’t wait until the attorney is finished. Jumping in too soon makes the court’s record jumbled, makes the Court Reporter’s job harder, and can result in answering the wrong question.

  3. Answer Only the Question That Was Asked: Pay attention to “the call of the question,” the scope of the question asked. Answer just that question and no more. When you volunteer additional information, you usually just prompt the questioning lawyer to ask more follow-ups.

  4. Take Your Time: You don’t pick up extra points for fast answers. Listen to the question. Be methodical. Answer it.

  5. Don’t Guess: Witnesses often think saying “I don’t know” makes them look dumb and, consequently, will try to answer questions they shouldn’t. C’mon. None of us remember everything. It can actually enhance a witness’s credibility to admit that they “don’t know.” If the truth is that you don’t know, then that’s the right answer to give.

  6. Make Sure You Understand the Question:  Sometimes lawyers garble questions, use unfamiliar words, or are just generally confusing.  During those moments, let them know you don’t understand what they’re asking.  They’ll re-phrase the question and try to do better.

  7. Don’t be Forced Into an Inaccurate Answer: It is one thing to be cooperative. It is quite another to be so cooperative that you’ll agree to propositions that aren’t true or with which you don’t agree. It’s okay to stand your ground. Just do so with civility and respect.

  8. No Fighting, Anger, or Impatience: If you display “attitude” or show anger or hostility of any kind to the opposing attorney, you are helping him or her, and are losing ground with the judge. Even if you feel the attorney is being inappropriate or mean to you, you are better off being patient and civil in response.

  9. Be Consistent: Be familiar with all other statements and representations you’ve made in your case. The opposing lawyer will have studied your prior statements and is looking to exploit inconsistencies and use them to undermine your credibility.

  10. Relax: Yeah. Easier said than done. But it’s still true. Witnesses who appear relaxed and conversational, who speak in their own words and don’t look practiced, who turn and talk to the judge when it’s important, are more believable.

Not much. Pretrial Conferences are usually short and sweet. They are “case management” events, where trials and other deadlines are scheduled. The parties are usually required to attend, but don’t have to speak or do anything.

Not much. The “Initial Case Management Conference” is an informal meeting that happens in Minnesota family cases. It’s a chance for a local judge to explain two processes—an FENE and SENE—and encourage you to use them. A Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (FENE) is a chance for you and your spouse to explain your financial circumstances and positions to a qualified neutral professional and then listen to their estimate of how a judge might distribute your debts and assets and deal with support issues. A Social Early Neutral Evaluation (SENE) is the same process, but involves your child-related issues (custody, visitation, decision-making, etc.).

Probably not. It’s only on TV and in movies that judges decide cases on the spot. In the real world, it’s more common for the judge to give lawyers a few weeks to submit written closing arguments and proposed orders before the Court issues its written decision and order. It often takes 1 to 3 months, sometimes more, to receive some decisions.

Yes. In both North Dakota and Minnesota, each party can disqualify one judge, whether for good reason or for no reason at all. After you’ve used your “one free bump,” you can only disqualify a judge for “good cause,” which most often involves a conflict of interest, such as when the judge knows, or has a relationship with, a party or witness.