What Self-Rep (Pro Se) Litigants Should Know About Courtroom Etiquette and Communicating with Judges


When representing yourself in court, known as proceeding "pro se" or "self-represented," it is imperative to adhere to the same standards of decorum and respect as practiced by experienced legal professionals. Understanding and following courtroom etiquette not only reflects well on you as a litigant but also aids in the smooth proceedings of the court. Here's a comprehensive guide to courtroom etiquette for self-represented litigants:


General Courtroom Etiquette:


  • Dress Appropriately: Wear business-like clothing. Think of attire suitable for a formal job interview.
  • Arrive Early: Being on time means arriving at least 15 to 30 minutes before your scheduled time to account for security checks and to find your courtroom.
  • Security Compliance: Expect to go through a security screening. Follow the security officers' instructions and respect any prohibited items list.
  • Silence Phones: Turn off or silence your mobile devices before entering the courtroom to avoid disruptions.
  • No Food or Drink: Do not bring food or beverages into the courtroom. This maintains the formal atmosphere of the court setting.
  • Speak Only When Called Upon: Do not interrupt the proceedings. Wait for your turn to speak, and do not speak out of turn or to the gallery.
  • Respect Everyone in the Courtroom: Treat all court staff, opposing parties, witnesses, and the judge with respect.


Addressing the Judge:


  • Stand When Speaking: Stand when you are speaking to the judge or when the judge is speaking to you, unless the judge gives you permission to remain seated.
  • Use Formal Address: Always address the judge as "Your Honor" or "Judge [Last Name]."
  • Speak Clearly and Formally: Use formal language, avoid slang, and speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard.
  • Do Not Interrupt: Never interrupt the judge. If you are speaking and the judge interrupts you, stop talking immediately and listen.
  • Answer Questions Directly: Respond to the judge’s questions as directly and succinctly as possible. If you do not know the answer, it is acceptable to say so.


Presenting Your Case:


  • Organize Your Thoughts and Materials: Have your documents, evidence, and thoughts organized to present your case in a clear, efficient, and logical manner.
  • Be Factual and Concise: Stick to the facts relevant to your case. Do not provide unnecessary background information or personal commentary unless they are directly pertinent.
  • Listen to the Other Side: When the opposing party or counsel is speaking, listen attentively without making faces, gestures, or audible comments.


Communicating with Court Staff:


  • Politeness Matters: Always be polite and patient with court staff. They can be helpful, but remember they cannot give legal advice.
  • Follow Instructions: The court staff may provide procedural guidance. Make sure to follow their instructions carefully.


Understanding Courtroom Procedure:


  • Familiarize Yourself with Courtroom Processes: Before your court date, try to observe a proceeding in the same court to understand how the process works.
  • Speak in Turn: Only speak when it is your turn in the proceedings, such as during opening statements, presenting evidence, or when questioned.
  • Objections: Learn the basics of legal objections, but use them sparingly and appropriately. Improper or frequent objections can frustrate the court and may not be helpful to your case.


Interacting with Other Parties:


  • Maintain Composure: Even if the opposing party says something upsetting or false, maintain your composure and address any inaccuracies during your turn to speak.
  • Direct Comments to the Judge: When arguing your case, direct your comments to the judge, not to the opposing party.


Understanding the Judge's Role:


  • Impartiality: Remember that the judge is there to maintain order and ensure justice is served impartially based on the law and evidence presented.
  • Decisions and Rulings: The judge's decisions and rulings may not always be in your favor. Regardless of the outcome, maintain respect and composure. If you disagree, you may have the option to appeal, which should be done through the proper legal channels.


After the Court Session:


  • Wait for Dismissal: Do not leave the courtroom until the judge has officially dismissed your case or called a recess.
  • Orderly Exit: Leave the courtroom quietly and respectfully, without causing any disruption.


Additional Tips:


  • Emotional Control: Court proceedings can be stressful. Practice techniques to manage stress and maintain a level head in court.
  • Seek Guidance: While court staff cannot provide legal advice, they can offer procedural information. Legal aid services may offer guidance for pro se litigants.
  • Written Submissions: Any written documents submitted to the court should be well-organized, legible, and follow any specific formatting requirements the court may have.


By adhering to these guidelines, self-represented litigants can ensure that they are giving themselves the best chance to be heard and respected in court. It's also beneficial to research and understand the specific rules and procedures of the particular court you will be appearing in, as these can vary


For information on the nuts and bolts of the civil litigation process overall, including how to do a legal analysis, check out the Self Rep Edge Video Series and Civil Litigation Workbook.