As personal injury lawyers and criminal defense lawyers in Charleston, South Carolina, we handle many types of cases in and out of court. Because we are familiar with the South Carolina court system, many things that seem like common knowledge to us are not that common to others when it comes to preparing for court. For most, court can be an intimidating experience but if you are correctly prepared and know what to expect, some of the stress may lessen.
Start Preparing for Court the Night Before
Try to get a good night’s sleep before you go to court. You may be in court for the better part of the day depending on where your personal injury or criminal case falls on the docket. Don’t go on an empty stomach! Most courts do not allow food or drink so make sure you arrive fed and hydrated. When you are tired, hungry, or thirsty, you are not at your best!
What You Wear Matters
First impressions are important. The judge hearing your personal injury case or criminal defense will associate your attire with the level of respect you are giving to the court. Make sure you dress properly and conservatively for each court hearing. Failure to dress appropriately could result in your case being continued or you being excluded from the courtroom during the case.
If you are a women and choice to wear a dress or a skirt, it should be knee-length or longer. Tailored slacks and a blouse are also acceptable. Men should wear tailored slacks and a collared shirt. All attire should be clean and wrinkle free. Examples of clothing that are unacceptable for court include baseball caps, sleeveless tops, halter tops, backless dresses, low cuts dresses, mini-skirts, shorts, blue jeans, t-shirts, flip-flops, and sandals. Make sure you tuck in your shirt. When choosing your outfit for court, think “business casual” or to “church attire.”
If there is a jury sitting on your case, consider the type of case. A suit may be appropriate if the case is a business case. However, in a personal injury case, it may be more appropriate to dress down a bit. An expensive suit and jewelry could indicate that you really don’t need what you are asking for.
Remove any piercings other than one pair of conservative earrings for women. If you have tattoos, you should consider covering them. A conservative hair style and traditional color is a good idea. While these things represent who you are and individuality, you are presenting in front of strangers. These people do not know you and may make assumptions based on stereotypes. These stereotypes may not be accurate but these people are deciding your fate. A traditional, middle-of-the-road appearance will minimize jeopardizing your credibility. Most people don’t like being “judged,” but that is what going to court is all about.
What to Bring & Not to Bring to Court
Bring your everything that relates to your case with you. This means every document, CD-ROM, or thumb drive that relates to your case. It is best to be over prepared. Even if you have a lawyer, the is the possibility that some portion of your lawyer’s file was accidentally left at the office.
Leave your phone in the car. If your cell phone goes off in the courtroom, the judge may take your phone. You could also be held in contempt (put you in jail). One Charleston County judge put a participant in a holding cell because her phone rang during court. At the very least, the judge may take a ringing cell phone as a sign of disrespect.
For security reasons, you can’t bring in any knives, scissors, nail files, or other sharp objects.
You may want to bring a friend or family member for moral support. They will not be able to sit at the table with you but at least they will be in the courtroom to talk to you before and after.
The court will not wait for you if you’re late. If your case is called and you are absent, the hearing will go forward without you. This may cause your case to go in a direction that is less than favorable. When you arrive talk to court staff to make sure you are in the right place and waiting outside of the right courtroom.
Arriving early will give you a chance to sit down, relax, and gather your thoughts as you wait on your hearing. You are more likely to present well in court if you are in a relaxed state than if you are running down the hallway trying to make your hearing on time.
Watch Your Behavior in and Around the Courthouse
While you are waiting for your case to be called, be aware that people around you could be lawyers, witnesses, or jurors involved in your case and may overhear you. Don’t give the impression that you are taking the situation lightly by cutting up or joking around. It could give a juror a bad impression of you. Sometimes jurors are inconvenienced by jury duty and are therefore not in the best of spirits. You don’t want to give any jurors the impression that going to court is fun for you.
Don’t smoke in open areas where you could be seen by a potential juror. They may judge you for this before you even step foot into the courtroom.
Even when parking your car, be polite and let other cars in front of you. Don’t cut people off or show frustration towards other drivers. You never know who is in the other car.
While waiting inside the courtroom, sit there, watch, and be silent. Judges may take whispering to your neighbor, sleeping, or certain other acts as a sign of disrespect. Your sincerity, or lack thereof, will be noticed. When you and your lawyer are addressing the court, maintain a sincere demeanor at the table even if you do not like what others are saying. You do not want to be scolded by the judge for making facial expressions, talking, or shaking your head, in protest of what someone is saying about the case. If you must speak, do it through your lawyer. Most lawyers bring pads of paper to court to allow for clients to communicate with without talking.
How to Speak to the Judge
When speaking to the judge, be humble, respectful, and polite. The judge should be addressed as “Your Honor,” “Sir,” or “Ma’am.” Other parties, witnesses, and lawyers should be addressed as “Mr.” or “Ms.” This cannot be emphasized enough – show absolute respect, and it will likely be returned. Don not speak unless the judge asks you to do so. When you speak to the judge stand up unless you are told that you can keep your seat. If the judge cuts you off, let it happen. Don’t attempt to talk over the judge. It doesn’t usually go well. You could be penalized by the judge for being argumentative.
When asked a question by the judge do not beat around the bush. If the question calls for a “yes” or “no” answer, answer yes or no. Also, ake sure you answer the question that was asked. If you feel that your answer needs some explanation, first answer the question and then explain it.
Meet with a Charleston Attorney Before Going to Court
Usually, there is little that can be done AFTER the damage has been dealt in court. The procedural rules of court are complex and you can ruin your case by not following them. Evidentiary rules are equally complex and there may be important facts that you are unable to present because you did not follow the rules of evidence. Lastly, the law is complex. You may be unaware of laws in your favor or ones that may harm you. Even if you have researched the law appropriately, you may not be able to articulate it to the court.