Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
Most people's ideas about what goes on in a courtroom comes from movies, television, books, or maybe serving on a jury themselves. The image of a courtroom presented in movies, television, and books may or may not be accurate representations of courtroom proceedings, but if you're headed to court, you'll want to get a better idea of what really goes on in a courtroom and how you should conduct yourself. In FindLaw's Courtroom Proceedings section, you can find helpful articles on how to survive your day in court, tips on what to do (and avoid) as a witness, information on subpoenas, judge versus jury trials, and other related information.
What Is Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court occurs when a person disrespects a court, impedes its ability to perform its function, or defies a court's authority. There are two types of contempt: criminal contempt and civil contempt. Civil contempt most often occurs when a person doesn't adhere to a court order, which results in an injury to the rights of a private party. For example, a person may be held in civil contempt of court if he or she fails to pay court ordered child support. The biggest difference between civil and criminal contempt is the purpose it serves. Criminal contempt seeks to punish the actual act of contempt, while civil contempt aims to either 1) move an underlying proceeding along, or 2) restore the rights of the party who suffered because the person in contempt failed to abide by the court's order. So, when the underlying case is resolved, or once the person in civil contempt complies with the court order, the civil contempt sanctions usually end.
What Is a Subpoena?
A subpoena is a legal instrument used to request a person to appear in court or other legal proceeding, or to request the production of certain documents. A subpoena is a formal legal document, so a person who doesn't comply with a subpoena can be subject to civil or criminal penalties, such as fines and/or jail time. Although a subpoena can be used in any kind of case, it is most commonly used in personal injury, sex offender, divorce, and child custody cases. Some examples of the type of information or documents requested in a subpoena are: employee records, tax returns, medical bills, insurance records, DNA samples, and computer files, including download materials.
Being a Witness
Unless you're an expert who is used to serving as a witness, being a witness can be a nerve-racking experience. Having some information about how to act as a witness can help you prepare and feel less nervous about it. Firstly, it's important that you take a subpoena seriously. As mentioned above, failure to comply with a subpoena can have serious consequences. It's equally important to be honest with your testimony, but also don't provide more information than necessary. Even if you're not the defendant or plaintiff in a case, it's important that you appear presentable when serving as a witness in a trial. This includes dressing well as well as abstaining from any drugs (including cold medicine) and alcohol. Finally, if you have an attorney, be sure to follow his or her instructions and advice on how to behave as a witness.
Hiring an Attorney
Civil court actions involve not only knowledge of the law but also knowledge of court rules and procedures. If you will be involved in a court proceeding either as a plaintiff or a defendant, it's in your best interest to speak to a litigation attorney for guidance.
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