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The Family Lawyer’s Top Tips for Appearing in Court…

November 29, 2011

Unless you are a lawyer, appearing in Court isn’t likely to be your idea of fun. I aim to help my clients resolve their relationship disputes out of Court but sometimes it is just not possible. The issues you are facing may just be so urgent or serious that Court intervention is inevitable. You may have tried every possible alternative method of resolving the dispute you are embroiled in but still find yourself at the “last resort” of a Court hearing. No matter how you arrived at the point of a hearing, being prepared is vitally important.

At a hearing, a Judge can often be faced with one party 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 decision as to what version of events he or she prefers than who appears to be the most credible and reliable witness. In coming to this decision, a Judge isn’t just guided by what you say but also by how you generally conduct yourself.

I often tell clients that I am similar to a baker. I can only produce a product that is as good as its ingredients. In this respect, my client’s conduct at Court is a vitally important “ingredient” so here are my top tips that I share with clients when preparing for a hearing:

1.  First impressions count: You needn’t turn up in a three piece business suit (unless that is what you would ordinarily wear) but be clean, tidy and appropriately dressed. Ripped clothes, shorts, short skirts and singlets are not appropriate. Keep jewellery to a minimum – you want the Judge to be intently listening to you, not being distracted by your jangling bracelets or large earrings. If you wear gang insignia of any sort, you won’t get into the Court. If you wouldn’t wear it to a funeral or a job interview, don’t wear it to Court. 

2.  Take two turns: Turn off your phone. Turn up early. Seems straightforward but you would be surprised at the number of people who incur a Judge’s wrath for not doing these two simple things.

3.  If you don’t understand the question, don’t be afraid to say so: If you don’t understand a question or if you are asked more than one question at once, point this out to the lawyer who asked it. It’s important you are clear about what you are being asked.

 4. Take your time: This is your opportunity to present your case to the Court. You are likely to get only the one opportunity. Take your time and don’t allow yourself to feel pressured. Listen carefully to the questions asked of you. Take a moment before answering. You may feel pressured by the lawyer to answer quickly but take a deep breath and take your time.  If Counsel refers you to a section of your evidence, then take the time to find it and review it. 

5. Keep your language in check: By this, I am not just referring to avoiding explaining your point in a barrage of swear words. Small, seemingly innocuous things like referring to your child as “my son” or “my” daughter  sends important messages  about your attitude to parenting and the other parent.

 6. Focus on your child, not yourself: For the Family Court Judge, your needs and desires are secondary to the needs of your children. The sole basis for their decision is what is in your child’s best interests, not what is in your best interests. An inability to make this distinction can damage your case.

 7.  Remain courteous and civil at all times: towards the Court, the other party and the other lawyers. Your attitude towards these other participants can send a strong impression to the Judge about you as a person. I have had the situation of cross examining a male witness who called me “girlie” at every chance and was generally consdescending and rude towards me. On other occasions I have had witnesses become extremely aggressive in their demeanour. In each case, I let it continue because the witness was largely making my argument for me.

 8. Remember the Judge sees everything: The Judge will be sitting above you and from where they sit, they can see everything. The Judge’s assessment of you isn’t limited to while you are giving evidence. Every roll of your 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 end of the Court. However, the Judge could see him rolling his eyes, making gestures and rude comments and she let her displeasure at this be known on no uncertain terms.

9. 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. If you think you have a contribution that needs to be made, make a note and give this to your lawyer. Resist the temptation to comment on what the other lawyers or other party are saying.

10. 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 prepare you for it. This preparation is vitally important. Make sure you have been open and honest with your lawyer, whether or not you think it is in your favour or not. There is nothing worse for a lawyer than being blind sided when the client could’ve prevented this.

 11. A trip to Court is not a field trip for the kids: Do not bring your children to Court. You will usually have ample notice of a Court appearance so use that time to arrange care for your children. If you bring them to Court, it will just end up being stressful for you and for them. Young children are likely to become extremely noisy and unsettled. Older children just shouldn’t be privy to the discussions at Court. There may be occasions where the Judge wishes to see the children. This doesn’t happen often but if it does, suitable arrangements will be made in advance.

12. Be Honest: Again, this would appear straightforward but I sometimes think clients get scared that if they are honest about a situation, it will look bad for them. This may well be the case but 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.

Your lawyer should spend time preparing you for the hearing. If you are a self-represented litigant, it can be worthwhile buying a couple of hours of a lawyer’s time to get their assistance in preparing for your hearing and to have your questions about the process answered.

If you want  help to resolve a family or relationship issue, go to www.familylawresults.co.nz.

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