Family Law 101: Court Hearings

On TV, court is often portrayed as dramatic, or even glamorous. In reality, court is a formal and serious environment and being unprepared can have dire consequences for your case.

1. Arrive 15 Minutes Early

Arrive early before your court appearance to avoid delays in travel, time to find parking, and to meet with your attorney before court. Courtroom policies can vary slightly between departments, and some Judges will continue or “trail” your case to a later calendar, or even decide the case without your presence if you are late.

When the courtroom opens, be sure to:

  • Check the docket (list with the court cases on it) and note which number your case is
  • Remove hats, sunglasses
  • Sit quietly, and if possible, on the opposite side of the waiting area from the opposing party
  • Pay attention when the bailiff or court clerk calls roll – you will want to make sure that you answer

2. Turn Off Electronic Devices

Turn your phone on silent and turn off notifications (i.e., use “sleep mode” or similar) to avoid flashing lights and sounds. Nearly all courthouses prohibit the use of electronic devices in the courtroom. If you have evidence to present in electronic form, such as texts on screen, print before court  and bring copies for yourself, the judge, and opposing counsel / party.

3. Be Courteous and Respectful

Local court rules require professionalism and civility in court from all parties and their attorneys.

  • Refer to the judge or commissioner as “your honor”
  • Do not interrupt
  • Plaintiff / Petitioner presents their case first, and Defendant / Respondent presents their case next. In most instances there will be opportunity for the petitioner to rebut
  • Speak clearly and slowly
  • You may object to testimony and evidence offered
  • Actively listen to testimony and the judge’s instructions / questions
  • Answer the Questions Asked
  • Do not convey disrespect by rolling your eyes, sighing, or grumbling

Being courteous and respectful also improves your credibility. Scoffing at a witness’s testimony or interrupting the judge are disrespectful, and harm your credibility before the court.

4. Dress Professionally

Dress as if you are going to a business job interview. Your clothes should be clean and tidy (i.e., no wrinkles, stains), and modest. Inappropriate attire includes: sandals, shorts, sleeveless shirts, hats, and jeans.

Although not required, covering tattoos is a good idea because it eliminates distractions that may detract from your message to the court.

5. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

If you are representing yourself, you will need to present what and why you are asking the court to take action in your case. At a minimum, you should:

  • Know the legal requirements you have to meet
  • Review the state and local rules of court to ensure your pleadings (documents) meet their requirements
  • Have documentary evidence to corroborate verbal statements (this is not always possible, but is a good strategy)
  • Know the facts in your case
  • Have answers for “devil’s advocate” type questions that challenge your reasoning and actions taken
  • Take your court file and pleadings with you, especially any proofs of service

6. Honesty is the Best Policy

Perjury is a crime, and severely harms your credibility, which in turn can harm your case with severe consequences.

When in doubt, be honest with the court rather than making up facts. Simply state “I do not recall” or “I am not sure” rather than making up details, or jumping to conclusions. State what you do know. For example, if you are asked when a certain event happened and you do not recall the date specifically, you may state the year and month if you recall those details, then generally describe what day it occurred on. For example,  “This happened in July 2013, your honor. I do not recall the exact date, but it was on a Friday.” That is far more persuasive than arbitrarily making up facts, and avoids perjury.

7. Wait for the Court’s Order

After the hearing, the Judge will likely issue a minute order or findings and order after hearing. In some jurisdictions such as Yolo County Family Court, this is done electronically and is available immediately following the hearing. In other courts, parties and their attorneys must wait 10-30 minutes for the court order to be finalized.

By: Christina E. Cortino, Esq.  Christina is a family law attorney with a passion for handling high conflict child custody cases, and other complex aspects of family law, including adoption, domestic violence, divorce / dissolution, and asset division. Contact our office for more information on our firm’s services and how we can assist you with your case.

Disclaimer: This publication is designed to provide our clients and contacts with information they can use to more effectively manage their resources and information. The contents of these publications are for informational purposes only. Neither the publication nor the lawyer(s) who authored it are rendering legal or other professional advice or opinions on specific facts or matters. The author assumes no liability in connection with the use of this publication.