The minute you feel you have your schedule organized, life happens. If you are scheduled to appear in court but an emergency arises, you need to communicate that you will be absent and the reason for it as quickly as possible. This will both reduce the inconvenience to other people involved in the case, and also keep you out of serious trouble.
Penalties for a No-Show
It's a very bad idea to fail to show up in court when you are expected there. If an emergency occurs, you need to let the court know as soon as possible. Exactly how much trouble you will get into by not showing up for a court hearing depends on your role in the matter.
If you are a criminal defendant charged with a crime, your unexplained absence might cause the court to issue an arrest warrant for you. This means that if you are picked up by the police for a small infraction, you may be arrested immediately.
If you are a party to a civil action, you may be represented by an attorney. If so, a phone call to the attorney will allow her to seek a postponement. If you are not represented by an attorney, a failure to appear without notice can be very detrimental to your case. If you are the plaintiff, your case may be dismissed. If you are the defendant, the other party may get a default judgment against you.
If you are a witness and you have been subpoenaed to appear, failure to appear at the time specified is a serious offense. A subpoena is a legally binding order, and you can be held in contempt of court if you fail to obey it, or even get sent to jail. If you are a witness and you have not been subpoenaed to appear, your failure to show up may hurt the case of the party you are testifying for, but probably won't get you in legal trouble.
You should never miss a court hearing unless you really have a valid excuse. If you have a heart attack, your spouse has emergency surgery, your child is trapped in a burning building, or an earthquake damages the bridge you have to cross to get to court, you have a valid excuse. Any similar medical or personal emergencies are also valid reasons for missing court. Police, medical and emergency records will support your excuse.
Communicating with the Court
Your best course of action if an emergency strikes just before you are supposed to appear at court is to pass on this information as quickly as possible. Place a phone call to your attorney, the prosecutor if you are a criminal defendant but not represented by counsel, or the clerk of court. Tell them you cannot appear because of an emergency, then explain the emergency. When the emergency is under control, confirm the fact of the emergency and provide documenting evidence in a letter. The letter should include the case number, as well as the time and place the hearing was scheduled.
If you have a medical emergency, it may not be possible for you to telephone. In that case, you or your attorney will need to write to the court, or appear before the court, and explain what happened. With medical records supporting your emergency, you shouldn't have any trouble. If you write your own letter, be sure to include the case number, the time, date and place the hearing was scheduled and the reason you missed court.
If you are supposed to show up in court but cannot do so because of an emergency, you must communicate this information as quickly as possible. Usually that means a telephone call, but if you cannot do that, your letter should describe the emergency and contain documentation from medical or law enforcement personnel supporting it.
- Formal letters should generally be typed and printed on good-quality paper, though neat handwriting is acceptable.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.