Courthouse Behavior That Could Cost You Your Family Law Case
Notice I said “courthouse” and not “courtroom.” Most of us know what’s expected of us in a courtroom: hats off, gum out, manners on. We address the judge as “Your Honor” and are respectful to the other side – at least when the judge is actually in the room.
What too many parties don’t realize when they enter a courthouse is the courtroom is not the only place they are being judged.
One of the first things I tell a new client is to assume that they are being video taped and audio taped at all times. If they don’t want it seen in court, don’t do it. If they don’t want it heard by the judge, don’t say it. Whether or not you are literally being taped, you never know who’s watching and/or listening.
Emotions run very high in Family Court. People are angry, hurt, resentful, scared, nervous, confused, uncomfortable, sad and all those other things that arise when the fate of children, property and one’s future are at stake. Most of us reign in all the conflicting emotions in the courtroom and try to present a calm, respectful demeanor in hopes of demonstrating our credibility. The effort can be stressful and draining. And the temptation to just let loose as soon as you step out of the courtroom doors can be overwhelming. Giving in to that temptation could cost you your case.
Just because you don’t recognize anybody around you in the courthouse doesn’t mean somebody doesn’t recognize you. Just because you can’t hear what others are saying, doesn’t mean you can’t be heard. And just because you can’t see anybody, doesn’t mean you can’t be seen.
Why it Matters
You may be wondering why on earth you should care what others see and hear – they should be minding their own business, right? First of all, since you don’t know who they are you don’t know whether or not any aspect of your case is their business. Secondly, even if they should be minding their own business doesn’t mean they will.
In the two decades plus that I’ve been hanging out at courthouses across the state, I’ve heard more stories than I can count about what a judge’s clerk, bailiff, or reporter saw or heard that got shared with the judge – either deliberately or inadvertently. (Venting about the judge is a great way to get their attention!) I’ve heard accounts of judges who are in the hallway or a public part of the courthouse witnessing bad behavior from parties during a break, before proceedings and after proceedings. Should they take such things into account while making their decisions? How can they not? Much of what a family law judge hears during testimony falls under the he-said/she-said category – because there’s often not additional evidence regarding personal conversations during a marriage. So credibility of a party is a crucial factor when a judge has to decide which version of an event is more believable.
You may think you know every person your ex would have with them, but there’s always a chance that there is someone you wouldn’t have a reason to know – whether a new acquaintance or the friend of a friend – so don’t make assumptions. And there’s no possible way you would know who opposing counsel might have a relationship with amongst observers. I’ve gotten more than one good tip from a witness who heard a disclosure made or saw behavior from my client’s ex outside of the courtroom that proved helpful to my client’s case.
It doesn’t matter if the names you call your ex or soon-to-be-ex are accurate. It doesn’t matter if you are the wronged party and everyone you know thinks your anger and behavior is righteous. The people that see you in the courthouse generally don’t know you, your family history, and your specific circumstances. They only know what they see and hear. If what they see is you lambasting into the other party in the hallway or conference room, that is what they will base their impression on. If what they hear is you spewing hateful remarks about your opponent to your attorney or supporters, that’s what they’ll base their impression on.
Whether your venting takes place in the courtroom when the judge is not present, in the hallway, in a public area, or even in the rest room, assume your conversation and/or your behavior is not private.
Your attorney may warn you about exhibiting negative body language in the courtroom. Things like rolling your eyes and shaking your head vigorously while another is talking won’t serve you well. But what often isn’t discussed is what body language can convey to observers outside of the courtroom. Talking to your ex or one of their witnesses while standing too close or hovering over them can be construed as threatening even if the words spoken are benign. Displays of arrogance or gloating intended for your ex may not go unnoticed by observers. Hostile looks or gestures could result in courthouse law enforcement interference or escort for your ex – something the judge is likely to find out about.
Judge the One You’re With
Your family and fiends are extensions of you. While they may think their trash-talking and glowering looks toward your ex demonstrates their support of you, they’re not helping at all. Everything stated above about who’s watching and listening to you also applies to them. And reflects on you. If you know that a family member’s hatred toward your ex is stronger than their self-control, you may want to consider leaving them at home.
You should behave appropriately and respectfully in the courthouse during your family law case because it is the right thing to do. And because it serves you well and, if you have children, such behavior better serves them, also. If that is not enough motivation or incentive for you to do so, then remind yourself that there are eyes and ears everywhere.
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