When it comes to appearing in court, the way you speak can have a huge impact on the outcome of your case. Using the wrong words or phrases can make you appear less credible or even disrespectful to the judge and other parties involved. To avoid any embarrassment in court, it’s important to learn the right words and phrases to use. Here are some essential terms to know:
- Your Honor – When addressing the judge, it’s important to show respect by using the appropriate title. “Your Honor” is the most commonly used term and should be used when speaking directly to the judge.
- Counsel – This is a formal term for lawyers or attorneys. It can be used to refer to your own lawyer or to the lawyer representing the other party.
- Objection – This is a term used to challenge or dispute something that has been said or presented in court. If you disagree with something that has been said, you can raise an objection to bring it to the attention of the judge.
- Sustained – This term is used by the judge to indicate that an objection has been accepted and the evidence or testimony in question will not be allowed.
- Overruled – This term is used by the judge to indicate that an objection has been denied and the evidence or testimony in question will be allowed.
- Defendant – This is a term used to refer to the party who is being accused of a crime or wrongdoing in a criminal case.
- Plaintiff – This is a term used to refer to the party who is bringing a lawsuit against another party in a civil case.
- Testimony – This refers to evidence presented in court by a witness. It can be verbal or written.
- Cross-examination – This is the process of questioning a witness who has already testified in order to challenge their testimony or credibility.
- Hearsay – This refers to secondhand information that is being presented as evidence. It is generally not admissible in court.
Knowing these terms and using them appropriately can help you communicate more effectively in court and avoid any misunderstandings or embarrassing moments. It’s also important to remember to speak clearly and confidently, and to avoid using slang or overly informal language. By presenting yourself as a respectful and credible witness or party, you can increase your chances of success in court.
What are words you need to know if you are going to court? Many people who are going to a courtroom in the United States feel unfamiliar with the process and the procedures. It is a very formal environment. It feels uncomfortable. And so, in an effort to help, people who are going to court feel a little bit more comfortable and get used to some of the vernacular and language that is used in court. I wanted to present this little video with some tips. These are some common words that are used in court.
When referencing the judge in court, you always want to say, “Your Honor,” so Your Honor replaces the word “you.” So you might say, “The defendant said to your honor the following,” and then you say whatever the quote is. It may feel a little unusual, but “Your Honor” replaces “you.”
When you were referencing the judge outside of a formal court process, you usually call the person Judge. So if you run into the judge in the elevator, you might say, “Good morning, Judge.” You wouldn’t say, “Good morning, your Honor.” Your Honor is reserved usually for the courtroom. Now, it is not wrong to say, “Your Honor,” but I am just telling you what is typical in the profession is to reference the judge as judge, not Ms. Smith or Mrs. Smith, not Mr. Smith or even Judge Smith. It would be judge.
When you reference an opposing attorney in a case, that attorney is called opposing counsel or counsel or counselor. For example, you might say, “Good morning, counselor.” “Good morning, counsel.” Counsel is often used in the plural sense, or counselor is more singular, but it is my understanding counsel can be simply a reference to one person if needed, but it is very common for somebody to greet me and say, “Good morning, counselor,” or opposing counsel said the following.
So, one of the reasons for doing that is to make the statements in a court proceeding less personal rather than saying, “Ms. Smith said this.” I want to use their title simply as a reference to the fact that it is their position within the proceeding that makes this comment important, not trying to make it personal. So I might say, “Opposing counsel has argued the following,” or “Opposing counsel said this or said that or admitted this.” I don’t want to be making it personal by saying Jane or Jane Smith or Ms. Smith did this. That is just too personal to use somebody’s name, and it is considered improper and unprofessional at times in a court proceeding.
The names of the parties are set by each court. It might be plaintiff and defendant. It might be appellant and respondent. There are a variety of other names that are used. But it is certainly proper to use people’s titles or roles in your discussion. For example, that can help attorneys when trying to explain a difficult concept. And if a party has a name that is difficult to pronounce, the attorney can just say plaintiff or defendant,
Let’s talk about the parts of the court. Chambers is the judge’s private office. Usually, parties do not go into chambers. At times, attorneys will go into Chambers, but Chambers is the place where the judge does his or her work. Courtroom is the room where the court holds its sessions. That is fairly obvious. The lobby is usually the room outside the courtroom where people can walk back and forth to different courtrooms. There are often also private rooms or mediation rooms. These are rooms that are usually right outside the courtroom, connected by the lobby, and it is a place where an attorney and clients can go and talk among themselves in a confidential manner. It is also a place where parties might get together and talk and see if they can work out some sort of settlement or negotiation.
Now you might be wondering, “What is the part of the court that is right up by the judge and beyond where the attorneys or the public should go?” I am not familiar with a specific name for it, but what I can tell you is it is often referenced with the question, “Your Honor, can I approach?” In other words, “Can I approach you Your Honor and go beyond the spot that is designated for the attorneys and for the parties?”
In a courtroom, you typically have four zones. You have the public zone where the public can sit. You have beyond the gate where there are typically a couple of tables or pedestals where the parties and attorneys can be. You then have the zone between the attorneys and the court bench, and then you have the judge’s bench up there, and it is that zone between where the attorneys and parties sit and the bench where the judge is, which is where you need to ask permission to approach. Every attorney and every party should always ask the judge, “May I approach?” before walking up there, even if it is just to hand a sheet of paper to the clerk.
In most hearings, you have what are called opening arguments and closing arguments. Opening arguments is when an attorney will explain what evidence is about to be presented. This is usually in a trial, for example, so a trial will have opening arguments. And then, some sort of evidence presented, and then closing arguments, tying that evidence to the law. So opening arguments are at the beginning. Closing arguments are at the end. There are usually court rules about what is permitted there. But as a general rule, you can argue what the evidence will show and how that relates to the law, and that is the language you want to use. “The evidence will show…” So instead of saying, “The defendant did this or that,” you want to say, “The evidence will show the defendant did this or that.”
Often attorneys will say that once the evidence will show the following, and then they go through a list of facts. Other times attorneys will say the evidence will show fact number one, the evidence will show insert fact number two, etc., and keep saying that. That is in the opening arguments. Then in the closing arguments, you are tying in the facts that were presented after the opening arguments. For example, today, you heard testimony from the defendant that this happened, and then you tie that into how that shows a law was violated. Those are opening arguments and closing arguments.
Let’s talk about the different stages of a trial. The plaintiff puts on their case, and then the defendant puts on their case. This is in a civil trial, not a criminal trial. The plaintiff’s case is the first part until the plaintiff rests. That basically says the plaintiff has put in all the information that they need to establish that they are entitled to the relief requested by the court. If the judge looks at the plaintiff’s case and there is not enough evidence to support the plaintiff’s allegations, then it is appropriate for the judge to dismiss the case before the defendant even puts on their case. Often that is done by a motion for directed verdict, which is where the defendant’s attorney says, “Your Honor, I move for a directed verdict,” and then explains what evidence was missing from the plaintiff’s case that was essential for the plaintiff to win.
Let’s assume the plaintiff’s case is done. So the plaintiff did opening arguments, rests the plaintiff’s case, maybe had some closing arguments there, but often will reserve some of the closing arguments for the very end. Then the plaintiff rests. Now the defense gets to put on their case. The defendant’s attorney will then make perhaps some moping arguments but more likely jump right into witnesses, doing a direct examination of witnesses or a cross-examination of witnesses. Let’s talk about that.
What is a direct examination of a witness? It is when attorney asks that attorney’s own witness questions.
What is a cross-examination of a witness? That is when attorney asks questions of another party’s witness. So there are certain rules. I won’t go into that a whole lot, but the key is if it is your witness, you do a direct examination. If it is somebody else’s witness, you are doing a cross-examination.
Let’s talk about courtroom attire, which is somewhat related. First off, I always recommend that my clients dress professionally. The more professional, the better. Now, don’t do a tuxedo; no bow ties in most cases. But I don’t recommend a T-shirt, certainly not shorts, sandals – where toes are showing. I have seen all sorts of stuff, and you won’t always get kicked out of the courtroom for it, but the court considers it disrespectful, and it is not a good start to a case by having the judge look at you as a person who is disrespectful or at least, not aware of standard protocol and conventions for court. I even saw one time a guy was charged for drugs, illegal possession of drugs, and he walked in with a shirt that had a message related to drugs on it. Just not smart.
A related topic is how to react in court. What sort of emotions should you have? Have you ever watched on TV where the parties were stoic? They seemed apathetic. They were expressing no emotions. The attorneys expressed no emotions, and you are like, they look so fake. If I were in court, I would cheer. I would smile. I would have tears. I would express normal human emotions that you would expect when somebody is testifying, but that actually is not effective in a courtroom. It is very effective on TV. That is why you often see it in movies and TV shows. But it is a standard protocol and expectation in court that parties will not be disrespectful by attracting attention to themselves when the attention should be on something else.
For example, if a witness says something that is a lie and you are a party, you don’t go, you know, you don’t give any sort of look because what that does is it caused everybody to look at you, including the judge, and sometimes the judge will even warn you, no more of that. No more expressions, no more reactions. This isn’t a theater where you are rewarded for your animations. You are to sit quietly and listen. And when it is your time to speak, that is when you can communicate through emotions and words.
Let’s talk about profanity and slang. Whether it is curse words or just slang words, the bottom line is they are not demonstrating a degree of professionalism that engenders respect from the court. I generally try to avoid, unless absolutely required in a case, any sort of slang, and I certainly avoid any profanity. Why? Because it is considered disrespectful. And if you are going to use profanity in the court, you often want to ask permission in advance. For example, if you are going to quote somebody in court or if you are going to read a transcript. This includes all sorts of offensive words. They are best avoided at all costs, and I think strategically, it is important. It is not just about respect for the court, but those words can be distracting. That is what gives them their flavor, their spice in normal language if you will. And you want the emphasis and the attention of the court on the important legal issues and arguments that will win your case, not distractions with, “What does that slang term mean?” or “I can’t believe they swore in the court” or those other thoughts that might distract a decision maker, like a judge or a jury, from what are the key points you are trying to make. And that is why as an attorney, I am always being very cautious to eliminate anything that would distract the jury or judge from that, which is most essential to win.
I remember the story of Abraham Lincoln, whereas an attorney he went to court, and the other side pontificated for hours, and he made a very brief short statement, just a few minutes long. What he did there is he identified what really is important here, and I am going to hammer those so the judge or jury hears those issue. That is why profanity, curse words, slang, it just doesn’t work well in a courtroom. Courtrooms are all about clarity and brevity, so the decision maker can clearly see and quickly understand what it is you are trying to argue or communicate.
A few more terms. Exhibit. What is an exhibit? An exhibit is any document or thing that you want to discuss in a courtroom. So an exhibit could be a gun, that may be the murder weapon or a sword, or it could be drug paraphernalia, or it could be a document, or it could be a transcript from a deposition. So these are marked as exhibits. The other side then gets to challenge whether it is permissible as evidence, and then often exhibits get put into the court record, which means they are now a part of the official record to be considered by the judge or jury.
What does inadmissible mean? Inadmissible means we are not going to admit it or allow it in the court. For example, if evidence is inadmissible, it means it can’t be presented to the jury, and it means the judge won’t pay any attention to it. Often then, if something is presented to the jury that is inadmissible, the judge will order the jury to disregard that information that they have been given. The judge may not explain why at the time. Sometimes judges do explain in advance of the trial that the juror are going to be considering admissible evidence, and there are various reasons that evidence will be considered inadmissible. For example, that evidence might be unreliable. The jury will not always be told why that evidence is inadmissible, but the jury is to disregard it. Just simply knowing that the judge has determined already that it is not even worth relying on or not proper to rely on.
Finally, evidence. What is evidence? Well, technically speaking evidence is going to be what is actually in the court record for the judge or jury to consider, but informally, people often talk about documents, information, gun, drug paraphernalia, whatever, that the parties want to get into evidence, but technically are not in evidence or in the record yet. And so often, attorneys will say, we need to get all the evidence. What they are really saying is we need to get all the information and items that might ultimately be admitted as evidence into the court record.
All right, so we went a little bit deep today, but my hope is that as you are preparing for a court hearing, you will at least now become more familiar with some of these common terms, and I would encourage you to look up the court rules sometimes called rules of civil procedure or the rules of criminal procedure in your particular state or if this is a federal case, look it up with the United States or the federal government. Because we have covered some basic stuff today, but you may see some exceptions and you will certainly see a lot more terms and words in those court rule documents, and those can be really helpful to just become more familiar and more comfortable for when you actually have to go to court.
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