Most people who end up in a family law courtroom have never been to court before. Perhaps they’ve served on a jury or appeared for a traffic infraction – but rarely has a divorce litigant actually been in front of a judge — fighting for what is most important to them: family, financial stability, and emotional security. Since courtroom television dramas aren’t representative of what divorce court actually entails, we thought we’d give a rundown of some of the basics. By demystifying some of the unknowns, you will be better equipped to focus on your case.
1. Parking: Yes, you heard me right. If you live in a metropolitan area, be prepared to pay for parking and understand it might be challenging to find a good spot. Bring change for street meters and cash for parking lots. Some of the lots take credit cards until they don’t. The last three trips to Alameda County – the credit card machines were down!
2. Security: Lines are often quite long trying to get into the courthouse. You will be required to go through a metal detector (in many, but not all) courthouses. Think airport security – be prepared to take off your shoes, your belt, empty your pockets, and wait. Get there early to avoid the stress of wondering if you will make it to the courtroom on time.
3. Check-in: Each judge runs their courtroom slightly differently. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer will check you in. If you are representing yourself or your lawyer is running late (not good), ask the court attendant or bailiff if you should check-in. Just outside the courtrooms the clerk usually posts the list of hearings by the door. Check to see if your case is on there and look to see what number and page you are on the list. That way, when you check-in, the clerk does not have to go through the entire list trying to find you. The nicer you are to the courtroom staff, the more willing they will be to help you and/or be accommodating, when you need it most. Often times judges call the roll when they get on the bench. Knowing which line number you are makes you feel more in control and prepared for when you get called.
4. Clerks and/or other court staff: Remember that clerk we just told you to be nice to? Feel free to kindly (they are multi-tasking like crazy) ask (assuming the Judge hasn’t taken the bench) whether or not there is anything or document you should be aware of. For example, if you have already attending Family Court Services for Mediation but have not received the report, chances are the court staff has a copy. It’s great to get your hands on it as early as possible.
5. No jury: Almost all family law matters are heard by a Judge and a Judge only. No jury in your divorce. That Judge has eyes in the back of her head. She is ‘judging’ litigants (and lawyers) before they even come before her. While sitting in the galley, watch your facial expressions, take off your hat, don’t chew gum, and PLEASE turn off your cell phones. When s/he calls your case, you will proceed to the table in front of the judge. Usually, there are two tables – one labeled Petitioner and one labeled Respondent. It’s a good idea to remain standing until you are told to be seated. Often times the Judge will instruct the clerk to ‘swear you in’ so that your testimony will be under oath.
6. Public hearing: It is very rare that you will be in the courtroom on your own. Almost always there are several other people – litigants, lawyers, interpreters, volunteers, family, and friends, etc. Speaking of which, if you’d like to bring a support person to sit with you during negotiations and while you wait for your case to be called – do it! Because there are so many other people in the courtroom who need the Judge’s attention, your case may be called out of order (especially if you have a contested matter). If you really do not want your case to be litigated in front of other (unknown) people, consider using a private judge. While expensive, they can be worth the money for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to: (1) efficiency – getting a hearing when you need it without having to wait 1-3 months; (2) privacy – outside ‘unknown’ people rarely come to private judge hearings; (3) choice – you have a say in who you pick to hear (and decide) your case.
7. Court reporters: Unfortunately, not all courts provide them. Find out ahead of time whether or not there will be one. If not, consider hiring one for your hearing. The court reporters generally sit just in front of the judge and type everything that you, your opponent, and the judge says. Once your case is called, you will be ‘on the record’ and everything will be taken down. Speak clearly and slowly. If you believe the Judge has not made an order about a specific issue that has been pleaded, ask him/her. If you are uncertain about what the actual order is/was, ask for clarity. If you believe there may be a disagreement after the hearing about what the judge did or did not order (this happens more often than you’d think – many people ‘hear’ what they want to hear!), then after your case ask the reporter for his or her business card so that you can obtain a transcript of the court proceedings.