Unless you are a lawyer, appearing in Court isn’t likely to be your idea of fun. A lot of lawyers don't even like it.
You likely have done everything you can to avoid it but still find yourself at the “last resort” of a Court hearing. Perhaps you have issues that are so urgent or so serious that the Court’s assistance is needed. However you have got to the point of a Court hearing or trial, you can make the experience easier by making like a girl scout and being prepared.
At a hearing, a Judge can often be faced with one person saying one thing and the other saying the complete opposite. In the face of competing evidence, a Judge may ultimately have nothing more to base his or her assessment on than who appear to be the most credible and reliable witness. In making this assessment, the Judge isn’t just guided by what you say but also by how you generally conduct yourself.
You may be telling yourself that it’s all up to your lawyer and that they alone will get you through to the result you want. I often tell clients that as a lawyer, I am like a baker. I can only produce a product that is as good as its ingredients. In this respect, your conduct at Court is a vitally important “ingredient”. Having spent over 20 years dealing in the good, the bad and the ugly of Court trials, here are some of my top tips for preparing for your court apperance:
First Impressions Count: You needn’t turn up in a suit (unless that is what you ordinarily wear) but be sure to be in tidy, modest clothing. Ripped clothes, shorts, short skirts and singlets are not appropriate. A good test is that if you wouldn’t wear it to a job interview or a funeral, you shouldn’t wear it to court. Keep your jewellery to a minimum – you want the Judge and your lawyer to be focused, not being distracted by jangling bracelets or your gorgeous statement earrings.
Take Two Turns: Turn off your phone. Turn up early. Seems straightforward but you would be surprised at the number of people who annoy a Judge by not doing these two simple things. If you are unfamiliar with the location of the Court, ensure you plan ahead for how to get there and where you will park so that these things don't have you running late.
If you don’t understand the question, don’t be afraid to say so: It’s important you are clear about what you are being asked. If you don’t understand a question or if you are asked more than one question at once, politely point this out to the lawyer who asked it.
Take Your Time: This is your hearing, not the lawyers’. This is your opportunity to tell the Court about your view and why you hold it. Take the time and don’t allow yourself to be pressured. Listen carefully to any questions asked of you. The lawyer questioning you, nerves or a desire to just have the experience over may mean you feel pressured to answer quickly but take a deep breath and take your time. If the lawyer refers you to a section of written evidence you have in front of you, then take your time to find it and review what it says before answering.
Keep Your Language in Check: By this, I don’t just mean avoid explaining your point with a barrage of swearing! Language conveys attitude and can have a big impact on how you travel through your separation. Small, seemingly innocuous things like referring to your child as “my” son or “my” daughter or “my” children sends important messages about your attitude to parenting and the other parent. Your body language also tells others just as much, if not more, than the words you choose.
Focus on Your Child, Not Yourself: For the Judge, your needs and desires are secondary to the needs of your child. In cases about a child, the Judge won’t be basing his or her decision on what is in your best interests but, rather, what is in the child’s interests. An inability by you to make this distinction can damage your case.
Have a strategy about where you sit: Unless your court has firm protocols about where each party and their lawyer sit, discuss this with your lawyer in advance. Sometimes, I will deliberately choose a seat close to the door because my client feels more comfortable knowing they can make a hasty escape if the need arises. On other occasions, I will sit my client and I in a place that means she is not close to the other party while she gives her evidence.
Remain Courteous & Civil at all Times: towards the Court, the other party and the other lawyers. Your attitude towards these other participants can send a strong impressions to the Judge about you as a person. I have had the situation of cross examining a witness who called me “girlie” in a condescending tone at every opportunity and was generally rude towards me. On other occasions, I have had witnesses become extremely aggressive towards me in in their demeanour. In each case, I let it continue because the witness was largely making my argument for me.
Remember the Judge sees Everything: In most courtrooms, the Judge will have a good view of everyone in the room. From where they sit, they can see everything. The Judge’s assessment of you isn’t limited to while you are giving your evidence. Every roll of you eyes, every mutter or snide comment under your breath and every gesture speaks volumes to the Judge. I had a situation in Court where I could not easily see the other party sitting a few seats away from me at the other side of the Court. However, the Judge could see him rolling his eyes, making gestures and rude comments and she let him know her displeasure at this.
Don’t Interrupt: under no circumstances. Never. Just don’t do it. OK? Unless the Judge directly speaks to you or you are being asked a direct question, don’t speak. Not only can it annoy the Judge but it can also mean your lawyer loses their focus. If you have a contribution that needs to be made, make a note of it and pass this to your lawyer. Resist the temptation to comment on what the other lawyers or the other party are saying.
Keep in touch with your lawyer in the build up to the hearing: your lawyer will need to talk with you about the hearing and help you prepare for it. This preparation is vitally important. Make sure you have been open and honest with your lawyer, whether you think doing so is in your favour or not. There is nothing worse for a lawyer than being blind sided by information your client could have told you but chose not to.
Be Honest: Again, this would appear to be obvious but I sometimes think people ger scared that if they are honest about a situation, it will look bad for them. If this is you, discuss with your lawyer your fear and the information that you are worried about. In my experience, a witness who is honest about the not-so-good points of their case, is more likely to be believed by a Judge when that same witness refutes or disputes another point.
Be Prepared for Negotiations: It isn't unusual for people to see the courtroom doors and be overcome with a desire to negotiate a settlement. Sometimes a Judge will urge this to happen. Discuss this with your lawyer in advance and go prepared for the possibility. You may like to take some brief notes with you that set out: what is important to you in any outcome and why, what you believe is important to the other party and why, what is important in any outcome for your children and why, the concessions you are willing to make and what the risks there are for you if you don't reach a settlement.
Have a Plan for if it All Gets Too Much: Being at court can be very stressful. You may hear things or have to speak about things that are very triggering for you. You may hear the other party speaking in ways that evoke unexpected emotions for you. You may struggle to see the other witnesses go through the stress of being questioned. Becoming overwhelmed or feeling that you want to press the escape latch, can mean you risk making decisions that you late regret. Having a clear strategy for how you will look after yourself during the trial will help prevent you becoming overwhelmed and will give you peace of mind for if it all gets too much.
Your plan might include: having a support person either with you or waiting outside; having a small object to place in front of you that, every time you look at it, you take 5 deep breaths; having a plan for where you will go during the lunch adjournment and how you will take in some movement and fresh air during breaks; having some healthy snacks in your handbag; planning in advance with your lawyer how you may request a break should you need it; having some earbuds and some calming music or meditation cued up on your phone to listen to during a break.
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