The basic rules of etiquette for speaking to a judge and conducting yourself in the courtroom are straightforward and vary little between court systems. Courtroom etiquette generally emphasizes respect for the judge and legal system, as well as formality and dignity. Protocol demands that you address the judge as "Your Honor," but only when he speaks to you first.
Dressing for Court
In most courts, whether you are a party to the case, a witness or a visitor, try to dress in business attire when attending court. Both men and women should keep their shirts tucked in so the judge can see they are not concealing weapons. Some courts may also require you to remove an overcoat. Women should avoid low-cut tops, short skirts and overly-tight pants. Men should wear pants that sit at the waist and do not reveal undergarments. A suit typically is the most appropriate court attire for both men and women. Hats and head coverings typically are not permitted in the courtroom, unless required by your religion.
Arriving at Court
Plan to arrive earlier than your scheduled hearing or trial time, so you have enough time to go through security screenings and find the correct courtroom. Upon arriving at the courthouse, turn off your cell phone. Because some courthouses ban cell phones, you may have to leave it in your car or with the security officer at the courthouse entrance. If you will have paperwork to present or reference, prepare it beforehand and have it easily accessible so the judge does not have to wait for you to find it. You want to avoid making unnecessary noise going through papers while court is in session. Additionally, many courts frown on bringing children to court or ban them outright, especially infants or young children who may not be able to stay quiet or sit in one place for long periods of time.
When the judge arrives in the courtroom, the bailiff will ask all parties to stand. He may also give other instructions for behavior, such as asking you to double check your cell phone and make sure it is turned off. During any hearings or trials, even if it is not your own case, try to remain completely silent. Many courts use electronic recording systems and background noise can interfere with these official recordings. Most courts also forbid food or drink, but during long trials, the judge may call several short breaks so that you can eat, drink or use the restroom.
Speaking in Court
Regardless of what role you play in a case, only speak to the judge when you are given permission to do so. Addressing the judge as “Your honor,” is best. Answering questions with “Yes, sir,” or “Yes, ma’am,” is also polite and appropriate. Use formal language. Avoid slang terms or cursing. Even if you disagree with a judge’s statements, demeanor or rulings, be respectful and don't challenge the judge in open court. You can address these issues later with an attorney. If you do not understand something a judge asks you or you could not hear her clearly, it is acceptable to ask for clarification. For instance, you might say, “Your honor, I did not understand your question. Could you please explain it?”
Anna Green has been published in the "Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision" and has been featured regularly in "Counseling News and Notes," Keys Weekly newspapers, "Travel Host Magazine" and "Travel South." After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school, then earned her master's of science in mental health counseling. She is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group and personal coaching service.