When Coronavirus first triggered ‘shelter in place” orders, most courthouses closed. Like full on shut down. It was like the Wild West out there for anyone trying to seek justice. Within a few days to weeks, we began to see online courts emerge. As we struggle to get Covid-19 under control, many courts are still requiring or, at the very least, allowing, self-represented litigants to appear in court via video conference.
Getting divorced over a video feed can feel ‘anticlimactic’ for some but most people tell us that they prefer sitting comfortably in their home over traveling to court, waiting in lines, and hanging out all day until their case is called. One thing is certain, online court will continue to be a part of our lives for a very long time. Let’s get you prepared for it in case your judge requires a virtual hearing before your divorce can be finalized.
What to wear to online court…
The first online courtrooms to get press attention during Covid-19 were in Florida. In an April 2020 article from The New York Times, Judge Dennis Bailey shared what a couple of lawyers (who apparently have no common sense or respect) wore:
“One male lawyer appeared shirtless and one female attorney appeared still in bed, still under the covers… And putting on a beach cover-up won’t cover up you’re poolside in a bathing suit.”
It sounds like a movie right? But even lawyers and other professionals who are used to appearing before a judge have totally misunderstood the concept of online court.
Online court is still court
Levine Family Law Group attorney’s Stan Sarkisov and Ian Van Leer, tell us: “Think Banana Republic or Gap (not the casual section). You want to dress comfortably — but also show the court that you respect the institution. Business casual sends a good message,” says Stan. We agree. Ian continued, “You don’t need to wear a suit or dress, but you definitely don’t want to wear pajamas. You will be on video after all.”
Both lawyers recommend wearing nothing too distracting and keeping it modest (we want the judge to focus on what you are saying, not what you are wearing). Dress as if you are attending church or temple, a business meeting, and/or a job interview. This isn’t to say you can’t be stylish — we want you to feel like “you” but just be mindful that to a certain extent — the court is a game and you are a player. Play to win.
Actions speak louder than words
A big part of the job of a judge is to determine the credibility of a witness. Are you or are you not telling the truth? What you say is one small part of that. Your body language, demeanor, and facial expressions are all fair game and when your face is on video, it’s as if you’re on stage. Your judge is looking right at you and if you’re fidgeting or rolling your eyes, you’re signaling that you are unreliable. Certified Family Law Specialist Ashley Schuh: “I always tell people the most important part of the online court is how your face looks (don’t forget you’re on camera!)”
Use your common sense
A lot of these tips seem like common sense but divorce is stressful and so is court. Sometimes our emotions get in the way of thinking clearly (and that’s totally understandable). Here are some tips for the online court that you can follow to ensure that you make your best case:
- Stay away from virtual backgrounds – unless lit properly, they tend to be distracting and make your head look a little like an alien.
- Have a backup device ready. Nothing is worse or more stressful than having your computer decide to auto-update just as your case is being called.
- Single-tone backdrops are best as a wall. If you have to take the call in your car or a kitchen, keep your video off until the judge calls your case.
- Do not interrupt under any circumstances. Judges hate interruptions but especially online — it makes it impossible for the court reporter to get a clean record and it is incredibly frustrating for the judge.
- That said, make sure you won’t be interrupted. Make arrangements for your kids, turn your phone on silent, or make sure the dog won’t start barking in the background.
- Do a test run to ensure your microphone, camera and sound are working properly.
- Watch online court sessions ahead of time — many counties stream court hearings from their court website. It will feel less intimidating once you have seen how it all works.
- Call the clerk’s office a day or so before your hearing to find out if there are any updates.
- Email a courtesy copy of your pleadings (court forms) to the judge’s clerk (if allowed) to ensure s/he has a copy. Court clerks are backed up and if you filed something a few days earlier, it may not be scanned yet for the judge to see.
- If you are presenting documents or evidence, make sure they are completed and accessible.
- Call the court ahead of time to learn how you can present evidence (if you have any).
- Turn your video and sound off until your case is called.
Have a tip or two to add? Share your comment!