What to Know Before Going to Court

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Written By Equal Justice Works Housing Fellow Dontae James

Appearing for a court date can be a stressful experience, but understanding the process and familiarizing yourself with what to expect can help to alleviate that stress. In this guide, we discuss a few things to keep in mind before heading to court for your case.

What to Wear

Dress for success – not distress.  First impressions are key in a court-room setting, and credibility is inherently tied with appearance. When appearing for your court date, wear what you would wear to a job interview or Sunday dinner with your family. For men, suit & tie, a collared/button up shirt, a polo shirt, slacks/dress pants, khaki pants, or dress shoes (black or beige) are all good options. Avoid t-shirts, shorts, blue jeans, open-toed shoes, sandals, overstated accessories, or any clothing with distracting imagery. For women, business suits/pantsuits, blazers, blouses, dresses, slacks, and closed toed shoes are all great choices.

Muted, neutral tones are what you should lean towards. This includes white, navy blue, black, gray, etc. Avoid distracting patterns and loud color combinations.

Hygiene and Grooming. Like clothing, proper grooming and hygiene are essential. Regardless of your hairstyle and/or beard style, try to assure that your hair is properly maintained, well-groomed, and clean. Avoid hairstyles that could be viewed as eccentric or bring unwanted attention. (Again, if you wouldn’t wear it to a job interview, don’t wear it to court.) A haircut or trim in the days before your court date is also a good idea.

Don’t Be on Time – Be Early

In the military there is a common saying that “If you’re on time, you’re late.” Under this methodology, the only way to truly be on time is to be early. Apply this to court. Aim to get to the courthouse as early as possible by adding a 15–30-minute buffer when you leave to account for traffic, construction, car issues, or anything else that could cause you to be late. For example, if you’re set to appear at 9 AM and you live 30 minutes away from the courthouse, leave by 8 or 8:15 AM to ensure that you have ample time.

What to Do in the Courtroom

Once you have arrived at the courthouse, you will typically be greeted at the front by the bailiffs or deputies that have been assigned to work with the courts. As a security check, you and your personal items will have to go through a metal detector and a scanner. After this, they will direct you to your assigned courtroom. If you have an attorney, you may see them outside of the doors of your courtroom waiting for you.

Enter the courtroom quietly. There will be benches next to the entrance door that will be facing the judge; this area is known as the gallery and will be where you will be seated. After sitting, you will wait to be called forward by the clerk, your attorney, the judge, or any other court official.

What to Bring to Court

1. Any physical evidence directly related to your case. This can be printed photos & text messages, a lease/rental agreement, payment statements, etc.

2. Witnesses that have firsthand knowledge of the case. In other words, witnesses that were physically present at the time of something significant occurring during the case.

Electronic Devices

The use of electronic devices is restricted in courthouses. If possible, leave any electronic devices that you have in your car once you arrive at the building. These devices include cell phones, laptops, pagers, Bluetooth, etc.

If you have an electronic device that will assist you in your case – for example, you have pictures or text messages that you want the court to be aware of – you may bring it with you to the courtroom, but its use will be limited until instructed by the judge or your attorney.

If there is a reason that you want to have your electronic device or cell phone that is not related to your case, some courts will allow you to bring it inside, but it must be kept on silent and it cannot be a distraction.

Who are Court Staff?

  • Judge
    • A judge oversees the trials that are brought before the court. You will see them at the front of the courtroom sitting in an elevated seat known as “The Bench.” They are also tasked with determining if evidence is improper or illegal, giving jury instructions, and sentencing.
  • Court clerk
    • The Clerks of Court are responsible for docket management, receipt of fees, fines and costs, maintenance of all court records, and submission of reports to a variety of state and federal agencies.
  • Bailiff or Courtroom Deputy (note: not all courts will have bailiffs)
    • The main priority of a bailiff in the court is maintaining security and order. They can act as a liaison between court officials and the public, as well as escorting the judge, witnesses, and incarcerated defendants.

Addressing the Judge – Do’s and Don’ts

Courtrooms are very formal settings, and as a result how you talk to the judge presiding over your case can be very impactful. When speaking with the judge, there are a handful of appropriate ways to address them. Always attach appropriate formal titles to the end of phrases when speaking with a judge. For example, let’s say the judge over your case asks you a yes-or-no question.

What you should say:
Yes, your honor.
Yes, judge.
No, sir.
No, ma’am.

What you shouldn’t say:
yeehaw, etc.

Also, avoid nodding or other body language that conveys a response without a verbal reaction. Everything that happens in a courtroom during an active case is reported and documented, and you will be asked to repeat answers verbally if the court reporter cannot understand you.

It is also a formality to stand when the judge is speaking to you if you are physically able, so remember to do this if possible.

What if I Can’t Appear for My Court Date?

If you receive a summons to appear in court for a date that you will not be able to attend, you may request a continuance. A continuance is an approval from the court to delay a hearing, trial, or other scheduled court proceeding to a later date.

To obtain this, call the number of the courthouse listed on the summons or ticket that you received, and ask to speak with the clerk. Different courts will have different processes for continuances, so you will need to follow the specific instructions given. Once you are given a new court date, make sure that you have this new court date in writing or an email.

Can I Get a Lawyer?

Legal cases can be expensive and many people cannot afford them, but thankfully there are resources that may be available if you need assistance financially. If you are a defendant in a criminal case and are below a specific financial threshold, you may be eligible for free representation from your local Public Defender’s office. Your eligibility will be determined after applying during your first appearance in court.

If you are a defendant in a civil case and classified as low-income, you may be eligible for free representation from your local South Carolina Legal Services office, or other legal aid programs. To determine your eligibility, you may call your local legal services office, or you can use this South Carolina Legal Resource Finder to input your information anonymously online.


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