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Court decorum

How to look and act in family court

From time to time, you may find yourself having to go to court, whether in a divorce or other family law matter. To help ensure the best possible outcome, you should plan in advance how you will present the appropriate image in the courtroom. Two things are important: how you look, and how you act.

Court attire

Hopefully, you will never have to show up for a court hearing in an orange jumpsuit and cuffs. But even if that were to happen, criminal defendants are allowed to change into a suit for trial by jury. The reason for this is that research shows, as does common sense, that what you wear can have a positive or negative effect on what others think of you. When your life or welfare is in someone else’s hands, you want to leave only the best impression.

In family court, you will not be facing jail time, unless you have not paid your child support for a very long time. Even that is a remote possibility. Still, it is important to dress appropriately for the occasion. After all, the court may be deciding how to divide custody of your children, whom to award assets and debts, or other matters that are crucial to you and your family.

Some judges have a list of specific no-no’s in court, such as:

  • No tank tops
  • No shorts
  • No flip flops
  • No hats
  • No sunglasses
  • No jeans

Other judges’ rules are not as explicit. But you do not want to run the risk of raising a judge’s ire. If you were to do so, you could be held in contempt of court, fined, or even thrown out of the courtroom. If the latter were to happen, the case might proceed without you, or you would have to start over on another day. If you ever had to show your face in that courtroom again, you would be guaranteed that the judge would remember being annoyed with you previously, just because you did not take enough time or care in dressing for court.

To be safe, you should dress up at least to the level of business casual. This means a button-down shirt or blouse and slacks, preferably not denim jeans. For women, a skirt or dress is an option. For footwear, wear something other than athletic shoes, such as closed-toe heels for women or loafers, wingtips, or boat shoes for men. Do not even think of wearing a t-shirt, particularly if it has a message silkscreened on it. You never know whether others might find it offensive.

It is important to note that the clothing need not be expensive. It is far more important that it be clean, neat, and well-pressed. If you are not sure what to wear, lean toward conservative or formal dress.

Women, keep makeup to a minimum. Mascara and eyeliner are fine.

Court demeanor

Just as important as your attire, if not more so, is how you act in the courtroom or anywhere else in the courthouse. The basic idea is to show respect for the court. Do not chew gum. Do not suck on candy, unless you have a cold and need a cough drop. Even when the court is not in session at a particular moment, do not text, email, or play games on your phone, tablet, or other electronic device. Better yet, turn off your cell phone before entering the courtroom.

Do not talk while someone else is talking. Instead, listen. If you need to get the attention of your lawyer or someone else, write a note on paper or raise your hand. Nothing irritates a judge more than a litigant or anyone else trying to interrupt or talk over another person—whether it be the judge, one of the lawyers, the other party, a witness, or anyone else—during a court proceeding.

When you are testifying, look directly at the person asking you the questions, whether he or she is the judge or one of the attorneys. If you feel uncomfortable having the opposing party in the same room, do not look at him or her. Look at your own attorney or something else in the room. Or close your eyes and think of a “happy place.”

If you address the judge directly, be sure refer to him or her as Your Honor. Never say Judge, Sir, Ma’am, Mr. Smith, or Ms. Jones. The judge expects and deserves respect in his or her courtroom.

If you think there is even the slightest chance you may be moved to tears at the hearing, be sure to bring facial tissue along. The court usually, but not always, supplies a box. By the way, crying is fine, as long as it is sincere. On the other hand, smiling or laughing at a somber or quiet moment generally is frowned on. As in a church, synagogue, temple, or other place of worship, a courtroom is a place to act reverently.

You may bring relatives, friends, or both for moral support. They will need to sit in the gallery behind the pony wall at the back of the courtroom. They also will need to be quiet and refrain completely from using electronic devices. You want them to be an extension of you. And you want to represent to the court how respectful you can be and how much you appreciate the gravity, or importance, of the occasion.

If you have any questions on how to look or act, ask your attorney. But remember to do so before the hearing.

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