If you’ve been asked (or subpoenaed) to appear as a witness in court, it’s important to understand and respect basic principles of courtroom etiquette. Whether you’re testifying in a major criminal case or a routine civil matter, you must always conduct yourself in a manner that respects the court, the attorneys and the jury. Here are some basic rules of decorum that apply to just about any courtroom setting.
1. Always Be On Time. If you’ve received a subpoena to testify, it will usually specify the date and time you must appear in court. It’s essential you’re at the courthouse and ready to go at the designated time. Ideally you should arrive 15-20 minutes early just to be safe.
2. Dress Appropriately. You should treat any courtroom appearance like a day at the office and dress in business-appropriate attire. Shorts, T-shirts, tank tops, baseball caps, et al., re not acceptable. Dressing professionally not only shows respect to the court and its proceedings, it also makes your own testimony appear more credible.
3. Respect the Court and Its Officers. The judge not only presides over the courtroom, he represents the court itself and the law. When a judge enters the room, you rise. If you need to speak directly to the judge, he or is she is addressed as “Your Honor,” never by name. You must also show respect to the attorneys for both sides, as they are all considered officers of the court.
4. Speak Clearly. When asked a question by an attorney, you should answer “yes” or “no.” Do not simply nod or shake your head as it may not provide a clear indication to the jury or the court reporter of your response.
5. Answer Truthfully. If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama on television, you know all witnesses are sworn to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Always take this oath seriously. Perjury in any official proceeding is a felony under Florida law.
6. Answer Directly. While you must always testify truthfully, you should not extend your answer beyond the stated question. If you don’t know the answer to a specific question, say you don’t know. If you’re making a guess or estimate, make that clear in your response. If you’re testifying in a jury trial or grand jury proceeding, direct your statements towards the jury or grand jury.
7. Dealing With Objections. If an attorney asks you a question and the opposing attorney objects, do not answer until the judge has ruled on the objection. Do not, as you sometimes see on television, offer to answer the question in spite of the objection. An objection indicates the question may not be permissible under the rules governing court proceedings, and speaking before the judge makes a determination may compromise the trial itself.
8. Be Prepared. Even routine trials can take a great deal of time. You may be at the courtroom for several hours on the day you’re scheduled to testify. Make sure all your personal affairs for the day are in order before arriving in court. Arrange child care if necessary as you should not bring infants and young children into court.