What Not to Do When You’re Going to Court

To help your chances of winning your court case, don’t show up late, don’t dress inappropriately, don’t lie and don’t interrupt others.

A judge holds up his hand in a "stop" gesture.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you are going to court as a witness or a party in a lawsuit, there are a lot of ways you can do real damage to your chances of success, several of which should be common sense, but others you don’t want to learn the hard way.

Who better to speak with for practical advice than a superior court judge who is a friend of this column — Anthony J. Mohr, who spent over 20 years on the bench in Los Angeles and recently retired. I also ran one important issue by California State University, Bakersfield professor of psychology Luis Vega, whose academic focus is persuasion.

I asked Mohr, “What are some of the things that will reduce or harm your chances of success, the things NOT to do?”

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1. Fail to dress appropriately, thinking, “Well, it’s a free country, and I should be able to wear anything I want.”

Consequences: “Judges are usually conservative, and they will relate better to people who are conservatively dressed than a person full of tattoos, piercings and wild clothing. This is reality. Your appearance matters,” Mohr stressed. “Regardless of your appearance, we will listen to you and try to be fair, but you will relate better if you dress in a conservative, modest way. Juries may also react badly to a person in slovenly dress. There are studies that prove a witness who fails to dress in an appropriate manner for court harms their credibility.”

Vega had a take on appearance that was a walk back in time to old television commercials: “The Head & Shoulders commercial that said, ‘The first impression is the last impression,’ needs to be heeded in the settings where we seek a positive outcome for ourselves. And don't rely on luck. You may only get one chance. So, when going to court, dress like you are applying for an office job.” Do not dress as if you are going to a social event. Leave your jewelry at home. Men, tuck in your shirt. No loud colors.

2. Fail to answer the question and instead give a rambling history of all the events leading up to your being in court today.

Consequences: “You will upset the entire courtroom,” Mohr said. “The jury won’t appreciate this one iota, as you are wasting their time. So, answer the question. If you need to clarify the context, do so after you respond and ask the judge or the attorney, ‘May I please explain?” Generally, you will be allowed if you have answered the question.’”

3. Lie and/or twist the facts, believing you are the smartest person in the courtroom and that no one will ever know.

Consequences: “Knowingly lying in court about a material fact is perjury and carries a possible prison sentence in most jurisdictions,” Mohr said. “Never think that you can pull one over on the lawyers or the court, as they have all read the pleadings, declarations and have a good idea of the facts. Juries are told that if they find a witness has testified falsely about one thing, they can, if they choose, disregard all of that witness' testimony as being unreliable and not credible. So, it isn’t worth it.”

4. Show up late, thinking the judge has lots of other cases that can be heard if you aren’t on time, so no one is harmed.

Consequences: “Court etiquette requires that you show up on time,” Mohr said. “Nothing shows disrespect more easily than coming into the courtroom late.”

Courts — especially family courts — have massive calendars. To function smoothly, parties and their witnesses must be present when it’s their turn. A guaranteed way to lose the respect of the judge and courtroom personnel, and even your own lawyer, is to be late to your court date.

“If you will be out of town,” Mohr added, “let your lawyer or the court clerk know well in advance of the court date. If you are representing yourself and can’t make it on the scheduled date or time, consider hiring a lawyer for the purpose of making the appearance on your behalf. If you do none of those things and just don’t show up, you could be defaulted, which means you’ll lose your case. You could also risk a fine.”

5. Interrupt anyone who is saying things that you disagree with, including the judge, thinking you can’t let them get away with damaging your case or reputation.

Consequences: “You’ve got to be polite to everyone in the courthouse,” Mohr said. “You must wait until it’s your turn.”

Concluding our chat, Mohr said with a broad smile, “And remember, you catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar.”

And for real-life examples of how a judge can react when these rules are not respected, I recommend watching reruns of the court TV show Judge Judy, starring Judge Judy Sheindlin, or watch her new series, Judy Justice

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."