WHAT TO EXPECT YOUR FIRST DAY IN COURT
So you received notice of your first court hearing. The very thought of appearing in court causes some people to feel apprehensive and concerned. Questions and concerns range from where is the court located, what should I wear, what time do I have to be there, and will I have to speak in court among others. It is important to know what court you are going to, and the time of the hearing. You want to give yourself plenty of time because parking at the courthouses is usually quite limited. Also, you need to be aware and be prepared for going through security, which in some of the probate courts may take longer than you anticipated. Most courts schedule hearings for 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning. At that time, the judge's clerk will call the list, so it is important to be there on time.
If you are unsure about where the court is located, or if you need directions, or if you want to know about parking availability, you can always check the court's website. This information is available on most of the probate court websites. While some of the newer courts, such as the Plymouth courthouse in Plymouth or the Norfolk Probate Court in Canton, have considerable parking available, others in Brockton, or Boston, or Cambridge have very limited parking available. So plan accordingly.
The old adage about making a good first impression is also true about your first court appearance. This is the first time that you will be in front of the judge assigned to your case. You only get one opportunity to make a good first impression. There is no dress code, or specific requirement as far as appropriate attire for court. However, you should remember that court proceedings are formal, and you should dress in a manner that indicates you take the court proceedings seriously, and that you respect the judges, and the work that they do. There is no necessity to wear a suit and tie, but you should not be wearing clothing that might be considered inappropriate, such as tank tops, cut-offs, or bare midriffs. You will want to dress comfortably, as it is likely you will be in court for several hours.
Litigants often want to bring a number of individuals with them when they go to court. It is important to understand that motion days are very busy days for the court, and the judges usually have numerous cases on the motion list. If everyone brings several individuals with them to keep them company, or potential witnesses, there will not be enough seats in the courtroom. Court proceedings can be quite intimidating, particularly the first day, so often I encourage my clients to bring a family member or close friend to sit with them as they wait for their case to be heard in the Probation Department or courtroom. Often individuals feel that the motion day is "their day in court," particularly if there is a highly contested matter. They bring several individuals with them, intending to have them testify as to their position, or their good character. It is important to know that the judges rarely, if ever, conduct evidentiary hearings during a motion session. Therefore, do not be surprised if those individuals are unable to address/speak to the court. Additionally, you should understand that only the parties and their attorneys are able to participate in court ordered mediation. Spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, and parents are not allowed to participate in any mediation sessions, unless they are a party to the action. Court proceedings are filled with emotion, and bringing a new spouse, or new boyfriend or new girlfriend to the proceeding may not be wise, particularly if there is a chance that there will be any conflicts and/or confrontations.
So, you know where the courthouse is, you have made a decision about what you are going to wear, and who you are going to bring, if anyone, with you to court, and you arrive at the courthouse. Everyone entering the courthouse must go through security. Therefore, be prepared to remove any items that may cause a delay in proceeding through the security system. You should note that many courts, including the probate court, may hold items for you until you are ready to leave the courthouse. These include, but are not limited to tape recorders, cell phones with photographic capability, and anything that is considered to be a weapon.
If your notice of hearing did not include the session or courtroom number, you should look for the bulletin board, which is usually on the first floor of the courthouse. If you have specific questions about what courtroom, where you are supposed to go, or if you do not see your name on the list, go to the Register of Probate's office, and one of the clerks will be happy to assist you. Once you have checked in with the clerk in that courtroom, you will likely be told to proceed to the Probation Department, to meet with a probation officer. All contested cases, that is those cases in which the parties have not reached a full written agreement, must go to Probation. Once there, your case will be assigned to one of many probation officers, who will meet with the parties, if they are pro se, and with either the attorneys only or perhaps with all four individuals, if the parties are represented by counsel. The purpose of probation is to mediate and to attempt to reach a full resolution of all matters that are before the court. During the mediation session, each party will have an opportunity to state his or her position regarding the issues. The probation officer will listen carefully, and may make recommendations or suggestions as to how the parties may resolve the issues. While the court anticipates, and hopes, that a full resolution will be achieved on most, if not all, of the cases, there are many times it is impossible to agree to either the terms that are proposed by the probation officer, and/or by the other side. Do not feel compelled to agree to something you are uncomfortable with, or that you feel is unfair to you, and/or perhaps to your children. If you are able to reach an agreement on some of the issues, that will be reduced to a partial agreement, and will be presented to the court for approval. This Stipulation will be signed by all the parties, their attorneys, and the probation officer. Once approved by the court it becomes an order of the court, and every party will be obligated to follow the terms. Be sure to read the Stipulation carefully before you sign it, as it will become an order of the court. If you feel you will be unable to comply with that order, do not sign it, as failure to comply with the terms may subject you to a Complaint for Contempt at a later date and time.
In the event that you are uncomfortable, or feel unable to sign either a partial or a full Stipulation, you have the right to present your case orally to the judge. Many people worry about what to say and about how to present their case. The important thing to remember is that this is your opportunity to present your side of the case to the judge. Prepare in advance for the possibility that you may need to explain your position in court. Get your documents and other information organized, so that you are able to explain to the Court exactly what you want, and the reasons why you feel your position is correct. Speak slowly, and remember that the proceedings are recorded, so try to not to mumble or to speak in a very soft voice. The judge will allow each side to present his or her "side of the story." Be careful not to show emotion, particularly anger or frustration, and try to refrain from interrupting the other side when it is their time to speak. The judges expect, and demand, courtesy and respect to the other party as well as to the court. Following these simple directions will allow you to present your case to the judge.
Once the judge has heard the two sides of the case, he or she may issue a verbal order from the bench. However, most of the time the judge will take the matter "under advisement," meaning he or she is going to revisit or review your file, and issue an order at a later date and time. It is the written order that the judge mails to each party that will become an order of the court. Many courts will provide copies of the stipulations or partial stipulations at the time that they are signed. However, many courts will also send the stipulation out with the court order at a later date. If you have any questions about what procedure your particular court follows, do not hesitate to ask the judge's clerk, or the probation officer, so you are well aware of what will happen.
Once your case has been heard by the judge, the judge will tell you that you are free to go. Your court appearance will end, and you have no further obligation that date. The suggestions contained herein apply generally to most situations, and are geared toward those individuals who are pro se, that is are not represented by counsel. In the event that you are represented by an attorney, you should consult with that attorney prior to going to court to inquire as to what the expectations are for that particular day and your particular hearing. I hope that this information is helpful to you, and I wish you good luck on your first day in court.