If you receive an order requiring you to go to court, it's best to think of it as a demand and not an invitation. You may suffer unpleasant consequences if you don't show up. That said, the world can sometimes have other plans, and an emergency might arise that prevents you from appearing on the set date. If that is your situation, be sure you can document your emergency so you can ask the court for leniency.
A Court Date Shouldn't Be Taken Lightly
You may be given a court date for all sorts of matters – if you are charged with a crime, issued a traffic ticket or are called to attend a hearing in family court or bankruptcy court. You may need to go to court in a civil matter if the court orders an evidentiary hearing or arranges an arbitration or mediation session where you might need to testify. For a criminal matter, you are likely to have several court dates, including for arraignment, pre-trial hearing, trial and sentencing. Not showing up for these types of hearings can only mean bad things for you.
State laws vary, but in some, the court can charge you with minor crimes for failing to appear at a court hearing if you were ordered to appear, such as contempt of court. A judge can also issue a bench warrant for your arrest when you don't show up. This means that whenever a police officer stops you, even if only because your brake light is out, you can be taken to jail and kept there until a hearing occurs on your failure to appear or contempt charge. These charges can only occur if you disobey a court order; if the court merely sets a hearing date but does not order you to appear, you cannot be found in contempt. However, you can still suffer consequences for your failure to appear, such as losing your case because you weren't there to give your side of the story.
Valid Excuses for Missing a Court Date
Be careful about missing court dates. Any time a court issues an order that you need to appear for something, it's a serious matter. There are circumstances, though, where a court may excuse your failure to appear and give you a second chance. Specifically, you can either show the court that you did not get notice of the court date, or you can argue that circumstances beyond your control prevented you from attending.
Missing Court Due to Lack of Notice
You have a valid court date only if you or your attorney was served notice of the hearing. If you don't have an attorney, the court will mail notice to the address you provided. It is your duty to advise the court if your address changes. If you didn't, the court won't excuse your failure to appear. However, if your opponent was supposed to send you a copy of the order or notice and he did not, you can certify to the court that you were not served with the notice, and that may help you.
Emergency Situations are a Valid Reason for Missing Court
Circumstances beyond your control can be anything: a heart attack, a sick child, an accident at work, a kidnapping. Do a sense check before using these excuses: your child breaking a leg and needing to be rushed to the emergency room is one thing; the same child having a mild stomach upset is quite another. If at all possible, call the court before the hearing to explain the circumstances and announce that you won't be there and why.
If an emergency comes up at the last moment and prevents your appearance at court, you will need to document it. Medical emergencies should be documented by medical records, emergency room admission slips, ambulance records or a doctor's statement. If your emergency is an automobile accident, get a police report, photos and an insurance statement.
If you miss a court date, you must be able to show the judge that the failure to appear was not intentional or avoidable. Evidence like an intake form from the emergency room or a police report about a serious automobile accident should help your case.
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.