5 Embarrassing Mistakes When Representing Yourself in Court
Due to budget cuts for legal assistance services – and the steep cost of attorney's fees –more and more people are forced to represent themselves in court even though they have little or no experience with courtroom proceedings.
Courts have strict formalities and procedures that everyone is expected to follow — including parties who represent themselves in court ("pro se" or "pro per").
If you are representing yourself, you do not want to ignore these court formalities or take them lightly, or you could:
- Annoy the judge;
- Sabotage your case; and
- Embarrass yourself.
We've put together a list of five common (and embarrassing) mistakes that we've seen from parties who are representing themselves in court — so you can avoid them.
1. Think that Justice Is Blind to Your Appearance
The workplace and world may have relaxed its dress code in general, but the courtroom has not. If you are representing yourself in court, you will need every advantage over your opponent.
Not only will your clothing be scrutinized by the judge and jury, but so will your grooming, jewelry, visible tattoos, hair, and more.
Dressing appropriately and presenting yourself in court is vital to making a good impression on the judge and jury.
It is even possible, if your clothing is inappropriate, that the judge may send you home to put on something that is more fitting for the courtroom. Not only is that embarrassing, but it could significantly delay your case and affect the judge’s impression of you. Not worth the risk!
2. Interrupt the Judge or Another Key Courtroom Player
Interrupting the judge is a big no-no! And you will most likely get reprimanded in front of everyone in the courtroom. Judges are particularly hard on self-represented parties — perhaps because they are often more prone to breaking this rule.
Even if you disagree with the judge — believe he or she misunderstands an aspect of the case — or is misstating the law or the facts, do not interrupt. Wait until the judge has finished speaking, and then politely respond, unless of course, the judge indicates that you should stop talking.
This principle also applies to the opposing party, counsel, and witnesses. You may hate what they are saying — but do not interrupt. Wait until they are finished speaking and the judge asks you to respond. If the judge does not offer you a chance to comment, you can politely ask the judge to allow you to speak.
One further tip: If you are ever admonished or criticized by the judge, never be disrespectful or raise your voice.
3. Fail to Address the Judge with Respect
You must treat the judge and your opponents with courtesy and respect at all times — even if you disagree with what they are saying. If you break this cardinal rule, you may face an embarrassing reprimand by the judge. If it happens during trial, it will only give the jury cause to question your character—and may affect your chances of prevailing in your case.
Here are a few words and terms you can use to keep your language respectful:
- “Respectfully” — you could interject this when addressing the judge or responding to your opponent’s arguments. For example: “Your Honor, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Smith’s arguments because…”
- “If I may” — this conveys deference to the court and shows that you are respectful of the court’s time. “Your Honor, if I may respond, this evidence is relevant to my case because…”
- “Counsel”— when referring to the opposing attorney, use the term “counsel.” Never use first names in court!
- “Please” and “thank you” — as in everyday life, these words are used far too sparingly in court. Whenever a judge, party, or counsel does or says something helpful, cooperative, or pleasant, be sure to thank them. This kind of respect, of course, is useful for all aspects of life, not just in court.
And always refer to the judge as "Your Honor."
If you'd like to learn more about courtroom procedures, how to dress for court, and how to address the judge, take a look at Courtroom Introduction: Etiquette, Procedure, and "Who's Who?":
4. Make a Mess of Motions When Representing Yourself in Court
Motions are crucial "vehicles" that drive your lawsuit forward and get the judge to make rulings in your case.
If you don't understand:
- How motions work,
- How to file a motion, or
- How to respond (oppose) a motion,
You could end up in the courtroom hearing the judge say, "Case dismissed" before you present a shred of evidence to support your claims.
Many self-represented parties lose their cases due to a lack of knowledge of motions.
Two common types of motions are summary judgments and motions to dismiss. Either one of these motions could end your lawsuit before it ever goes to trial.
If you want to avoid this embarrassing mistake, you'll need to study up on how motions work. Learn more.
5. Representing Yourself in Court Unprepared
The most harmful and embarrassing mistake when representing yourself in court is showing up unprepared.
Not only do you need to understand all the rules of courtroom etiquette in your jurisdiction and how motions work, but you also need to understand:
- The rules of evidence;
- How to make and respond to objections;
- Methods for obtaining evidence (written discovery and depositions);
- How to introduce exhibits at trial; and
- Additional trial basics that can help you present your most persuasive case.
You don't want to go to trial without being prepared.
If you'd like to learn how to better prepare yourself for court, we've put together a comprehensive tutorial that covers just about everything you need to know about how to represent yourself in court ("pro se" or "pro per"). Learn more.