A fair trial is one in which the rules of evidence are honoured, a litigant has competent counsel, and the judge enforces the proper courtroom procedures - a trial in which every assumption can be challenged – Harry Browne
As a family lawyer, the courtroom to me is a very familiar place. For my clientele however, the courtroom is often an unfamiliar place, marred by images of shouting, fighting and crying. Due to the influx of American legal drama on our television screens (such as Law and Order SVU and The Good Wife) an idea of what a courtroom looks like and how it operates has often already formed for the client before they have retained me.
The influences of American television drama have generally formed inaccurate views about the courtroom for the client. The client imagines a seething judge dressed in a wig, lawyers pacing back and forth at the bar table and the client having to sit in a witness box and be intimidated by the opposition. Fortunately our Family Law court system in Australia, namely the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court, adopt a less dramatic and a more sensible approach to court hearings.
Presentation in the courtroom
In Australia, our Federal Circuit Court courtrooms are overseen by Judges of the highest legal intellect and calibre our country can offer. Generally, the Judges of the Federal Circuit Court do not accept outbursts or dramatic displays from the lawyers and the parties to proceedings alike.
"Intimidating, bullying or threatening behaviour is not accepted and can reflect poorly on your case if you choose to exhibit such behaviour."
Hearings are undertaken using respectful and neutral language. While the counsel (the barrister) for opposing parties are arguing over the competing interests of their respective clients, the argument does not take on a personal context for counsel.
Counsel are expected to treat each other with utmost respect; after all they are colleagues in the same profession. Likewise, the opposing parties are expected to treat each other with respect in the confines of the court house. Intimidating, bullying or threatening behaviour is not accepted and can reflect poorly on your case if you choose to exhibit such behaviour.
With respect to presentation in a physical sense, counsel is only required to wear robes during a trial. For all other hearings, counsel wears business attire and corporate wear. For the client, it is important to dress in a neat and presentable fashion when attending for your matter in court. The court house has a conservative atmosphere and it is not advisable to wear thongs, shorts, tight skirts, show off tattoos or wear hats.
Many of my clients who initiate Family Court proceedings presume that they will be sitting in a witness box at the first court hearing. They further presume that a long drawn out argument will ensue in a dramatic fashion.
Often my clients are disappointed when I advise them that their first court hearing, known as a “First Return Date”, is a short, concise hearing that provides the court with an opportunity to diarise future dates for important steps in the legal process (ie: mediation, the obtaining of reports or times in which the parties have to file particular documents). or in urgent cases argument is usually less than 30 minutes.
While the client is expected to attend court at the First Return Date, they are not expected to sit in a witness box or stand up and speak. They sit in the gallery while their counsel approaches the bar table and speaks directly with the judge and with opposing counsel. All of the speaking occurs between counsel and the judge. The only opportunity the client will have to speak in a witness box is if their matter is listed for a trial, or for an interim argument where their evidence is specifically required.
The Federal Circuit Court is a highly secure facility. Based on the fact that the Federal Circuit Court handles Family Law matters which often involve domestic violence and people who are in highly stressful and emotional situations, it is imperative that their facility provides all its visitors with a safe environment.
Upon entering the Federal Circuit Court all persons, including counsel, must pass through a metal detector and have their bags searched. This is to ensure that no sharp objects or flammable liquids are permitted into the Federal Circuit Court courthouse.
The Federal Circuit Court offers secure rooms to those litigants who have Intervention Orders against the other party. A secure room must be booked well in advance to the court hearing. A security guard will meet you at the front of the court house and will escort the protected person to and from the secure room. The secure rooms have no locks and are only accessible via swipe card, which are only held by court security.
There is a constant presence of security guards in the Federal Circuit Court. Consequently, it is exceedingly rare for litigants to misbehave or display violent tendencies.
Our Federal Circuit is certainly not to be confused with the dramatic arena displayed in American legal dramas. Thankfully, the Federal Circuit Court is a measured, considered and safe forum in which a great volume of family law issues are equitably resolved.