How to Make a More Effective Appearance in Court

Why Your Clothing and Demeanor Matter

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When you have a court date, it's normal to be nervous and wonder what is the appropriate way to act and what you should wear. Whether you are the defendant, the plaintiff, or a witness, your appearance, dress, and actions can affect how the court sees you and how successful you are in presenting your case.

If you think your attitude or appearance doesn't matter, consider that they may cause you to be cited for contempt of court. Take the case of a Florida teenager who was given a contempt citation for her attitude (she was a defendant in a drug case). When she returned to the court, she was applauded for her change in attitude and appearance.

Respect for the Court

A courtroom is a solemn place, representing the judicial branch of the government, and a judge demands respect as a representative of the government, whether it is federal, state, or local. Specific rules apply to those who are bringing cases to court or who have cases brought against them. In fact, anyone appearing before the court, including witnesses and members of the public, have the responsibility to act with respect.

The key word in this discussion is "respect." You must have respect for the judge as a representative of the court, and respect for the courtroom process. Here are some general rules that most courts require you to comply with if you are in court:

  • Timeliness: Be on time. That means at least 10 minutes before your appearance time. You might have to sit and wait, but that is far better than running late. Arrive late, and you might find your case passed by.
  • Wardrobe: Wear business clothing. No wild hairstyles, open shoes, tank tops, mini skirts, T-shirts, or other non-business attire. If you are in doubt about what to wear, dress up rather than down. Also, never wear a hat unless it is for religious reasons.

What (and Who) You Should Not Bring to Court

  • Gum chewing, tobacco, recording devices (like PDA's or iPods), cell phones, food, beverages, or newspapers are not allowed.
  • Cell phones are not allowed in many courtrooms. If you are permitted to bring your cell phone, turn it off.
  • Children are allowed in most courtrooms, but only if they are quiet. If you must bring your children, have someone with you who can take the child out if he or she becomes loud or disruptive.

Court Etiquette

In general, you must have permission to move beyond a certain point toward the judge or jury. For example, if you are called as a witness, you will be sworn in. You may not move out of the witness box without permission. If you are sitting at the defense or prosecution table with your attorney, you may not move forward without permission.

The judge is to be addressed as "Your Honor," not "Judge Smith." Talk only to the judge and (in a soft voice) to your attorney. Do not address the opposing counsel or other party. When referring to others, do not use first names. It's "Mr. Smith," not "Jim," even if he is your brother-in-law.

Other points to follow:

  • Speak only when instructed or given permission, and don't ever interrupt. When you answer questions, be brief and to the point; answer the question you were asked and stop.
  • Don't interrupt anyone, most especially not the judge.
  • Only one person is to speak at a time, because of recording devices in the courtroom and for politeness.
  • Don't argue, and especially not with the judge.
  • Use formal English, not slang.

In other words, be on your best behavior and consider the solemnity of the courtroom. Show respect to the judge and others in the courtroom.