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Families struggling to keep their children out of foster care are stymied by two major problems: homelessness and low public assistance grants, according to two New York City studies.
An important factor that many parents tend to overlook in their efforts
to regain custody of their children in family court, is their own appearance.
It is essential that your appearance, actions and your speech reflect the
appropriate courtroom presence. Whether we like it or not, our appearance
the way we speak, and the words we choose, tell a great deal about us and
can make a difference in the outcome of our case.
Represent Yourself in Court
Learn how to:
What to do before going to court
- Check your clothing and appearance.
- Review your records.
- Review and organize your personal notes and reports.
- Organize photos and video tapes of the scene, exhibits and other objects (seized and marked by you and held as evidence) and any transcripts of your previous courtroom testimony. (Report early or at least on time to: The office of the district attorney who subpoenaed you.)
- Review the case with that attorney.
- Express your concerns about the case and/or fears about your testimony to the attorney before the trial.
- If you do have a "skeleton" in your closet, tell your attorney before your court hearing so that s/he may evaluate it.
- Find out where the witness room or waiting area is located.
- Failure to respond on time to a lawful subpoena may result in a contempt of court charge against you or a dismissal of the action against the defendant/respondent, or a warrant for your arrest.
- Remain at that location until you are called as a witness. If you must temporarily leave for any reason, tell the bailiff or a member of the court staff where you are going and when you will return. It is very important to review the case before the court hearing to "tie up loose ends" and refresh your memory.
How to dress for court
- Dress like a professional.
- Dress conservatively and, when appropriate, wear good quality clothing.
- If you have a choice, always dress as well as the other people who may appear in court.
- Avoid wearing loud colors.
- Remember that the "good guys" never wear black.
- Always be neat and clean. Pay special attention to your hands, nails, and shoes.
- Avoid putting anything on your hair that makes it shine or appear greasy.
- Avoid wearing tinted or dark colored glasses in the courtroom. People will not believe you if they cannot see your eyes.
- Wear only functional jewelry (e.g., wedding ring and wrist watch). Large bracelets, rings, cufflinks, tie tacks and earrings are distracting to the jury.
- Avoid wearing items that may identify a personal association or belief. Political buttons, club pins, college rings, religious jewelry may trigger some prejudices against you in the mind of a juror.
- Dress to fit the expectations of your audience; jurors expect you to look like a professional.
- Remember that even a small flaw in your appearance will be noticed by someone on the jury and it may hurt your credibility.
- Turn off your cell phone and put it away. If you must make a phone call using your cell phone, do so outside or in the restroom, not in the hallway and never in the courtroom.
- Wear clothing that is comfortable, fits well and makes you feel good about yourself. Ill-fitting clothing will make you look and feel uncomfortable, the jury will notice.
- What colors are best for you.
- What clothing styles look good on you.
- What makeup is best for you.
- How to make the most of your physical appearance.
Act Like a Professional.
- Your demeanor on the witness stand is an important part of your testimony. Avoid being perceived by the jury as silly, cocky, argumentative, bored or defensive.
- Have nothing in your pockets or on your person that "jingles" (e.g., coins, keys, earrings).
- Never chew gum or have related substances in your mouth while testifying. It interferes with clear speech. People may pay less attention to your testimony if they notice the chewing. A sudden cough or sneeze could send that substance into the courtroom.
- When not using your hands to gesture, keep them folded in your lap while seated in the witness stand.
- Remember, someone is always watching you.
- The jury will evaluate you in part by the way you act in and around a courtroom.
- Avoid crossing your arms or legs while testifying. This "negative" body language will be noticed by the jury.
- Remember the TV commercial phrase, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."
- Never let them see you sweat.
- The jury will judge you by your actions.
- Do not speak to any of the jury panel during the trial or its recesses, to avoid the appearance of impropriety. On the other hand, when testifying, speak to the jury panel, they are your audience.
- If you must speak to the district attorney, do it before the trial or at the break, preferably out of view of the jury. Jurors may draw a negative inference from your private conversation.
- Be polite to the attorneys on both sides of the case. The jury and/or judge will notice any tendency on your part to favor one attorney over another.
- Show respect to all of the courtroom officials. Be particularly attentive when the judge is speaking. Listen to what s/he is saying and be prepared to respond, if necessary.
- If you are required to draw a diagram, do your art work first and then explain it. When your back is to the jury, they may not hear your words.
- When you are explaining a diagram, be sure to stand next to it so that you are not blocking the view of the judge, jury or attorneys.
- If you know in advance that you will be required to draw a large diagram in court make every effort to complete it before court and bring it with you. Be sure to check carefully for accuracy. Let the district attorney know of your preparation.
- When drawing a diagram at the request of a court official remember to include a North compass designation for reference in your testimony.
- If you must address the court staff, use their respective titles. Addressing the judge as "Your Honor." Addressing the bailiff as "Mr. Bailiff" or "Mr. (insert name)."
Submitted by William Tower, AFRA President, edited by Annette M. Hall
Updated March 20, 2009