10.14 Going to Court

The Courtroom

The courtroom can be intimidating place, especially if you have never been to one before. If your divorce or separation is going to require time in court, you should definitely spend some time watching trials or hearings to get comfortable with what you might expect. It will especially be useful to see how other people present before the judge. One day, it might be you standing before the judge at trial or interim hearing.

Judge’s Tip:

BC courts are open courts. With few exceptions, someone can walk into your hearing to watch your proceedings just like you could walk into theirs. Don’t get distracted by others in the courtroom. 

Courtrooms are almost always open to the public so you are free to walk in and out as you please. You will be able to find information about what hearings are happening in which courtroom in the hallway. Usually there are papers posted with lists of proceedings for that day. Some courts may have TVs that display the proceedings instead. If you need help, feel free to ask the court staff and they can help you.

It might be a good idea to brush up on courtroom etiquette before your visit. The last thing you want to do is be disruptive when court is in session.


Courtroom Layout

Courtrooms come in different shapes and sizes, but they all look similar inside. Some courts are fancy and some are plain.

Usually there will be a raised bench opposite from the door you use to walk into the courtroom. This is where the judge or master sits when the court is in session. The judge or master is the decision maker in every family case.

Below the bench to the right or left is the court clerk. The court clerk is the person who helps the process run smoothly. The clerk will be the person who accepts evidence, administers oaths to witnesses, keeps track of proceedings, and helps the judge stay organized and efficient.

At certain hearings a court reporter may be sitting near the clerk. The court reporter’s job is to record everything that is said at the hearing for later use. For example, a transcript of the hearing might be useful to a party who wants to launch an appeal.

There is often a raised seat near the court clerk. This is called the witness box. If you have someone coming to testify at one of your hearings, this is where they will sit when they are speaking to the court and being examined.

In most courtrooms, the claimant and respondent sit across from the judge’s bench at separate tables. At your hearing you will sit at a table, and your former spouse and their lawyer, if they are represented by one, will sit together at the other.

A sheriff is a uniformed peace officer who maintains order and security in the courtroom. The sheriff may be standing or sitting somewhere in the courtroom. He or she will keep track of who is entering and exiting the courtroom and command everyone to rise when the judge enters and exits the courtroom. Listen to the sheriff’s instructions, like you would listen to the judge.

Some courtrooms may have another section of seating to the side of the room. This is called the jury box. This is where jurors sit as they listen to proceedings. Juries are not involved in divorce and separation cases.

Finally, the general public and people interested in your case, such as friends or family, are welcome to sit in the seating at the back of the courtroom. This section is called the gallery. The gallery is separated from the rest of the courtroom by wooden railing, called the “bar”. The only people that can pass through the bar into the other part of the courtroom are lawyers and people who are directly involved in the case. If you are not involved in the case, you may not cross the bar.


The Role of the Judge

When a judge is in a courtroom, he or she is in charge. Judges consider evidence, hear from witnesses, assess the credibility of arguments and make decisions based on the law and their judgment.

Judge’s Tip:

The judge will never be on anyone’s side. Judges are experts at listening to both sides and determining what facts are important before making a decision.

If the judge is concerned with something that affects the fairness of the trial, they will tell you and instruct you on proper procedure. However, a judge will not tell you how to conduct your trial or what to say in court. You will have to learn the techniques on your own because the judge cannot help you and also be neutral at the same time.Most importantly, a judge’s main responsibility is to make sure the both sides get a fair trial. To make sure that trials are fair, judges are always neutral parties. They are not there to play favorites or take sides. As a result, they are limited in their ability to help you as a self-represented litigant.

In general, a judge will listen far more than he or she will speak. You will have a chance to give your side of the story and present relevant evidence. Keep in mind that the judge is paying attention to your credibility, whether you are likely telling the truth. It is the judge’s job to consider evidence and make a decision.

Even though they have a position of authority, judges are just like you. They have similar feelings and they do get frustrated by the things they see and hear in court, just like you would. Keep that in mind when you are speaking and make sure that you listen to the judge’s instructions at all times. In fact, you may want to brush up on court etiquette before your hearing.


Court Etiquette

Lawyer’s Tip:

If you are bringing a witness with you to court, it might be a good idea to review this information with them.

Court can be a stressful experience for many people. It is a formal place that puts a strong emphasis on respect and courtesy. If you are going to court, there are some things you need to keep in mind if you want to be successful.

1.Be courteous and respectful at all times.

No matter what happens, it is your responsibility to be respectful and courteous to everyone in court at all times. You can expect to be treated with the same respect and courtesy by the court staff during the process.

2.Understand that court staff have boundaries they cannot cross

Did you know that court registry staff in BC cannot legally tell you if your forms are filled out correctly or not? Usually, court staff will help you as much as they can. They understand that the court process can be complicated and stressful. But sometimes, they have limits to what they can do. If court staff refuse to help you with something, it may be because they are not permitted to give the assistance you are requesting.

3.Keep your emotions in check

No matter what happens at your hearing, you are going to be better off if you remain calm at all times.

4.Arrive early

You should arrive at court at least fifteen minutes before your hearing so that you have enough time to get to the right courtroom. Make sure you are not late for your hearing.

5.Dress appropriately

Dressing in a neat and professional way will help show the judge that you are serious about your case and respectful of the court process. You want to make a good impression.

Both men and women should dress as professionally as possible. Jeans, shorts, low cut tops, or short skirts are not appropriate. You should be neat, modest, and well-groomed for your hearing.

Men can wear a button down shirt and a clean pair of dress pants. If you have a sport coat or suit, feel free to wear it but you don’t have to.

For women, a blouse and skirt or dress pants would be appropriate.

Judge’s Tip:

Don’t get into arguments with your ex in the courtroom. The Judge needs to concentrate on the facts in your case and will appreciate your taking the high road and treating your ex politely. 

6.Speak appropriately

When you are in Provincial Court, the proper way to address the judge is “your honor”. When you are in Supreme Court, the proper way to address the judge is “my lord” or “my lady”. You should call everyone else by their last name. Do your best to speak clearly and calmly when it is your turn to speak. Take your time.

Don’t use slang and be mature about the way you address the court. Never swear or insult anyone in the courtroom. You always want to make a good impression.

7.Be organized

Make sure that you are organized and ready for your chance to tell your side of the story. You should know where all of your paperwork is and you should not waste time fumbling around in a folder. It is a good practice to organize all of your paperwork in tabs that can be easily referenced by the judge.

8.Know the rules of court

Every hearing has a certain order. Everyone will have a chance to speak in court. Be patient and attentive. Never interrupt anyone when they are speaking in court.

Don’t make a scene if the judge or the other party says something you disagree with. Rolling your eyes or being sarcastic or offensive will not help you. Be mature, and be respectful at all times, no matter how you are feeling about what is being said.