Antonella Rodriguez – Associate
Your first appearance in court can feel like a daunting experience. You will be walking into an unfamiliar environment and there are rules and customs that are observed that may not be familiar or apparent to you. We have put together a short guide to court etiquette to assist you to navigate this new scenario with ease.
Family Court hearings can be frustrating, emotional and draining. You may wish to bring along a trusted person who can provide you with support and comfort during the hearing. This should be a person who is able to prioritise being present and acting in a way that provides you quiet support above their own feelings or reactions to what is occurring in court. Obvious reactions such as eye-rolling, sighing, laughing, shaking your head or gesticulating for example are easily seen by the judge and will not win you any brownie points.
It is not recommended to bring more than one or two people as support. Bringing an excessive number of supporters may be viewed negatively by the judge, especially if those supporters are visibly reacting to the proceedings or behaving in a disruptive way. In cases involving allegations of family violence for example, bringing many supporters with you to court may be seen as a type of intimidation.
Virtual hearings have become more common due to the Covid-19 pandemic and will likely continue to be a feature of hearings moving forward. If you are sitting in on a virtual hearing it is very important that you treat this hearing with the same formality that you would treat a hearing in a court room. This is not a friendly zoom call with your work friends, this is a formal court hearing that is recorded and preserved.
Ensure that your microphone is on mute and that you do not turn on your camera or your microphone unless you are specifically directed to do so.
To avoid a faux pas you should also double check your setting to ensure that your room and background are inoffensive and free from clutter or items that may cause distraction. If you are using a default or custom background you should ensure it is not distracting.
A further lesson learned the hard way by one lawyer, you should take care to ensure that you have not accidentally turned on any filters that will clearly and hysterically modify your appearance.
Please carefully read our guide titled “Social Media and Your Family Law Dispute”. In addition to the advice in that guide you should refrain from attempting to contact the judge or his associate. Generally, it is not permissible to attempt to contact the judge outside of court. Emails to chambers that are not sent jointly will not be brought to the judge’s attention
Attire & Presentation
There are no strict rules about what you must wear to the Family Court. However, you should keep in mind that the court is a serious and formal place and do your best to dress in a neat and tidy way. Taking care with your presentation and your appearance reflects your understanding and respect for the formality of the matter. The judge will appreciate that you are taking the matter seriously and presented yourself in court in an appropriate way.
You should ensure that your clothing is free from offensive slogans, images and language. Avoid ironic dressing: there is an infamous story about a man who pled “not guilty” to a charge of arson while wearing a collared shirt which was entirely appropriate for court… but for the large flames printed all over it!
The person who was filmed during a police interview wearing a T-shirt that said “GUILTY!” is another classic clanger. Be mindful of the message your clothing may convey, even unintentionally.
Many of the judges are also parents and grandparents and at the end of the day they understand the challenges that parents face. They know that finances can be tight. They know that sometimes you have to do your best with what you have, and they certainly do not expect you to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe to impress them.
Behaviour in Court
Whenever the judge enters court or adjourns court, they will bow. You should also bow at this time, but you are not bowing to the judge personally. Bowing to the coat of arms behind the judge is a custom that acknowledges your respect for the laws of the land, the court and the judiciary.
If the judge is speaking, they should be the only person speaking. If the judge is speaking to your lawyer, you should not attempt to speak to your lawyer at the same time as this will distract both the lawyer and the judge. If your lawyer needs to speak to you, they will ask the judge for a moment or a short adjournment to take your instructions. It can be helpful to bring a notepad and pen with you to court so that if you think of something important you can write it down and raise it with your lawyer at an appropriate time.
You should not bring food or drinks into the court room. If you need refreshment a small bottle of water is usually fine but if you are asked to put it away, you should not argue.
Ensure that you remove any hats or sunglasses from your head when you enter the court room, or you may be approached by a member of the court staff and requested to remove it. Religious headwear is exempt from this expectation.
Ensure that your phone is on mute or switched off entirely. You should not come into court with it set to vibrate or loud. Believe it or not, a vibrating phone is just as loud as a ringing phone in a quiet court room.
It is an offence to audio or video record or photograph the proceedings in court. With that said, it is important to remember that the court room is full of microphones and that those microphones are very sensitive and record at all times, even when the court is not in session. Be very careful about what you say, even if you are alone in the court room with your lawyer as it may be captured on the audio recording. The writer of this article once overheard lawyers on the audio recording, sitting in the court and speaking critically of the judge before he came in. This is not a good look for a lawyer or a litigant if the judge needs to listen to the audio for any reason!
As your specialist family law team, we are here to help you navigate the complexities of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. If you have any questions or concerns about going to court that are not addressed by this article, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for further assistance.