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Courtroom Decorum: How To Conduct Yourself in Court

Your conduct in court can make a big impression on the judge and jurors. It pays to know the appropriate way to act in the courtroom. This includes observing court etiquette and understanding the court's procedures and rules.

This article covers courtroom decorum and how failing to observe the rules may have a negative impact on your case.

What Is Courtroom Decorum?

Decorum refers to proper behaviors and etiquette in the courtroom. Parties to a case must conduct themselves properly, such as observing decorum during a court appearance or when interacting with the judge or other court staff. In other words, you should be on your best behavior during your case and when you appear in front of the judge.

Whether you have a criminal or civil case, decorum rules apply to any court proceeding. Even in the small claims court, which often follows relaxed rules of evidence and civil procedure, litigants must still observe decorum.

Examples of decorum include the following:

  • Addressing the judge as “your Honor"
  • Showing respect to court officers and other court personnel like the bailiff and court clerk
  • Turning your cell phone off during the court hearing
  • Showing up on time for your court date

See the section below entitled “Tips for Conducting Yourself While in Court" for more information about specific rules of decorum.

Why Is It Important To Observe Courtroom Decorum?

Courts have rules of decorum for several reasons, including the following:

  • The rules help maintain order in the courtroom
  • Following the rules ensures parties show respect owed to the legal process
  • It eliminates disruptive behaviors that could disrupt the court's process

Decorum also ensures the parties are respectful towards the other parties, victims, or family members of the litigants.

What Happens if You Don't Follow the Rules of Decorum?

Judges do not tolerate breaches of decorum. If you disrespect the court, the judge can punish you.

A judge may give you a verbal warning the first time you breach the rules of decorum. For example, if you refer to the judge as “judge" instead of “your Honor," the judge may remind you of the rules.

If you continue to disregard the rules, the judge may impose more harsh consequences. They may pause the hearing and reprimand you. They may also hold you in contempt of court. The judge can impose a fine against you or send you to jail for a few days.

Even if the judge does not hold you in contempt or reprimand you, remember that the judge (in a bench trial) or jury (in a jury trial) are the factfinders in your case. It's up to the factfinder to sift through the legal issues and decide who wins or loses. Staying on the factfinder's good side is in your best interests.

Tips for Conducting Yourself While in Court

This section describes some basic and universal rules regarding courtroom decorum. While standard rules of decency apply, such as treating everyone with respect, your local court may have specific rules of decorum. For more information, visit your court's website or contact the court clerk.

Commons rules of courtroom decorum include the following:

  • Show up on time: Be prompt and prepared for your court date.
  • Dress professionally: Don't wear a T-shirt or anything with logos or graphic designs. Consider wearing at least business-casual clothing.
  • Always address the judge as your Honor: Do not call them by name or as a judge unless told you could.
  • Never interrupt or argue with the judge: Even if you disagree, know that outbursts won't help you.
  • When speaking to the judge, stand up and be clear: Take your time and try not to shout.
  • Your only interruptions should be legal objections to their statements: Don't interrupt them because you disagree. Even if you think they are telling lies to the court, wait your turn. The court will allow you to respond and cross-examine them later.
  • Answer questions directly: Don't try to be clever or snarky.
  • Don't comment under your breath: Non-verbal acts or responses may disrupt the court. If you believe the opposing party made a false statement, don't roll your eyes or shake your head such that it disrupts the proceeding.
  • Turn off your cell phone: Do it before entering the courtroom, or leave it outside.
  • Do not bring food or drinks into the courtroom: In addition,  don't chew gum during your court case.

Additional court rules may affect your specific court's rules of decorum. Contact your local court clerk for more specific information about an upcoming court appearance. The clerk can provide information about the court rules, but they cannot provide legal advice.

Consider contacting your local state bar association for more information about court decorum. It may offer self-help and legal aid resources with more information about your local court system. If you are self-represented, your state bar association may have many resources that you may find helpful in your case.

Attend a Trial

One of the best ways to learn about proper court conduct is to attend a trial. Most trials are open to the public. Attending a trial allows you to watch how the parties interact and learn about the general flow of a trial. If the court has assigned a judge to your case, you can check their docket and see how they conduct their cases.

Contact an Attorney

If you have a legal dispute, an attorney can provide valuable legal advice to give you your best chance of winning the case. Not only can they ensure you understand your legal rights, but they can also help prepare for any upcoming court matters scheduled. They can also provide information about how to conduct yourself in a court proceeding. 

Consider contacting a civil litigation or criminal defense attorney for help with any pending legal disputes.

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