Appearing in court can be a remarkably stressful event. The courthouse seems like a foreign environment, wholly unlike the images we’ve seen on television. Except for the occasional traffic ticket, most people have very little experience with the legal process. The anxiety is compounded by the knowledge that you will be appearing in court for your own case.
This fear and apprehension is common, and it is caused largely by a lack of understanding of what to expect. The best way for you to prepare is to discuss the court appearance with your divorce attorney. If you have any uncertainty as to what to expect, you should make your concerns known to your divorce lawyer, well in advance of the scheduled court appearance.
The following are only some of the questions which should be clearly answered:
- “Where and when will I be needed?”
Be sure you know the precise location where your case will be heard. Ask your divorce attorney if there are any considerations you should take into account in scheduling your commute — such as notorious traffic or parking problems, delays in processing through security (i.e., long lines at the metal detectors), and the like. Additionally, try to get some estimate of the duration of your “day” in court, to better enable you to schedule your time.
- “How should I dress?”
Sometimes, a simple issue like your attire can be more significant that one might initially assume.
- “Are there any ‘rules’ I should be aware of?”
Few things can increase your anxiety and stress level than starting your day by being pulled aside at a security checkpoint — in front of a cranky and anxious line of people — to be asked to surrender your penknife, knitting needles, or even your cell phone. Or by being admonished by a bailiff (or, even worse, by the judge!) for reading, chewing gum, or having your cell phone ring in the courtroom.
- “What should I bring with me to court?”
There should be no misunderstanding as to the need for any documents or tangible evidence, such as photographs. Additionally, determine if original documents are needed, or whether copies will suffice, and how many copies will be needed.
- “Why will I be needed in court?”
Be sure you know the purpose of the court appearance, and why your presence will be needed. Is a temporary motion scheduled for hearing, which might require your testimony, or is a pre-trial conference, which may not require your direct involvement? Again, you have a right to know precisely the purpose of the court appearance.
- “If I will need to testify, what questions will you ask me, what can I expect from the opposing divorce attorney, and will I be questioned by the judge?”
While your divorce lawyer will not tell you how to testify, a thorough preparation should provide you with some understanding of what to expect of the process.
- “What is proper ‘courtroom etiquette’?”
Try to get an understanding of how your attorney wants you to conduct yourself while in court. How should you address the judge? Where should you sit while waiting? Where should you stand when before the bench? Should you follow him to the bench when you see him approaching? Even a basic understanding of courtroom protocols can greatly improve your comfort level, allowing you to be more effective in court.
Although it may be unfortunate, it is not uncommon for a divorce attorney to spend his or her time preparing for the substantive aspects of your court appearance and neglect to explain the more fundamental steps of the process. We often forget that something which is routine and mundane for a seasoned litigator is likely to be entirely new to a client. Don’t be shy! Ask questions. If you don’t quite understand the explanation provided, ask again. Remember, this is your case. You have a right — and, indeed, an obligation — to understand the process. In short, there are no stupid questions.
Michael S. Schiffman practices family law in Illinois, where he devotes 100% of his practice to litigation.