July 20, 2010

8 simple rules (are you buying that?) for surviving and thriving through an American court appearance.

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Well, wasn’t that a slice of life?

I’ve observed in in 2 courtrooms in my life.  The first time, I was a tourist in London.  Being a freak for certain mystery novels, I found myself wandering down Bow Street and discovered that court was in session.  Naturally, I poked in and sat in the gallery for a few moments.  I wasn’t quite romantic enough to imagine John Fielding on the bench or the Bow Street Runners giving testimony.  If I recall correctly, I was too concerned that I’d get pegged as a tourist and be told to leave.  No reason for  worry.  Seems the British system of jurisprudence is about as congenial to eavesdropping as the American one.  Come on in!

As long as you understand the rules and boyo are they quickly understood.  As I discovered in my 2nd lifetime courtroom visit yesterday, the physical layout is much simpler in America, but I believe the players are the same on both sides of the pond.  Here’s how it worked yesterday in America…

  • It’s hushy.  Courtrooms are specially constructed to dampen voices.  This is fine except when the magistrate (no, no, America…  the judge) has to ask you to speak up.  Which he did.  Several times with consecutive people.  This is your first lesson in lessons.  You will learn many during your short time there.
  • The first cell phone to ring will earn the entire courtroom a lecture complete with diagrams of circles with slashes through the middle drawn in the air by the judge.  He’s got to have it down pat by now.
  • Are these your best clothes?  Really?  Short, short, shorts and a tank top?  Jeans?  Well, it was the same with our British brothers and sisters.  Ron and I were smack in the middle between defendant and attorney attire.  This is more of an observation than a lesson since the judge seemed to be inured to skimpy attire.  The clerk however….
  • The clerk really runs the show.  The judge may think he does, but the power is all hers.  Yes, I am using stereotypical sex pronouns.  This may be the 21st century, but its the 19th in a courtroom.
  • While you’re patiently waiting for your name to be called, swivel your head toward the door every time it opens.  You’re checking to see if the other party named in your particular suit is going to show up.
  • Assume 90% of the people here are pursuing rent restitution and that 80% of the defendants do not bother to appear.  Why?  They know this system far better than we do and they know that this first appearance doesn’t mean anything.  They know that the 2nd appearance is when damages are actually awarded.  That’s when “no show” = “case dismissed OR damages awarded to the plaintiff”.
  • Realize that it’s a good thing that you’re about 20th on the list of 40 or 50 names for the 8:30 am session.  It’s educational.  By the time Ron’s name was called, we had an idea of how the system worked and a slim idea of what to answer when the judge asked his questions.
  • Listen closely to the instructions from the judge.  Do not assume that you can go home and look up what you’re supposed to do next on the internet.  His instructions are all the guidance you are going to get or be able to understand.  Think about it, though.  It behooves him to be clear.  He’s going to see you again in about a month and it may make things go more quickly if you do what he tells you to do in the meantime.

So,  what have we learned?  Truth be told (that’s irony…) I’m still trying to glean a cumulative lesson from all this.  Oh!  How’s this?

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

Significantly,

Susan Scot Fry

Update…  I enjoyed writing this post.  So, let me add one more rule:  Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s not work.

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