How to act in court

Divorce|Stowe Family Law|July 24th 2008

Clients don’t always realise that how they dress, act and speak are crucial factors that will undoubtedly weigh on a judge’s mind during a case. When there is a decision to be made in favour of the client, or against them, even the smallest details can make a huge difference.

Several years ago I chaired DSS Tribunals which heard appeals from people who had been refused various state benefits. Along with a doctor and a lay person, I would listen to the appellant explaining why they believed benefits had been unfairly denied, which frequently involved the apparent physical incapacity of the individual concerned.

Often the claimants would go to great lengths to describe their ailment in the pre-hearing paperwork. They would, for example, state why it was impossible to sit longer than 10 minutes at a time because of a back condition or to walk any measurable distance without assistance due to various medical reasons.

What they tended to forget, however, was that how they behaved during the tribunal hearing, which usually lasted about 45 minutes, was also taken into account and was equally as important as their written tales.

They would all remember to hobble into the tribunal, but those who were trying it on would invariably be caught out by the panel. As the heat of argument got the better of them, we were able to observe how inhibited they actually were. This behaviour wasn’t always a clincher for me, but it certainly helped me make up my mind – especially when there really was an attempt at fraud.

In a subsequent role, I interviewed lawyers who were applying for Law Society accreditation. While physical incapacity wasn’t an issue, knowledge was, and I honed my interviewing skills to a fine art. By the time I left my post in 2005, around 1,000 lawyers had passed before me for interview, with several thousand more being vetted with written applications. Needless to say, it wasn’t difficult to spot someone who was trying to bluff their way through. Not on my watch they didn’t!

I mention this because I think it is important that clients going into court have some idea of how they are expected to behave. Time and time again I am taken aback by the gross naivety of both men and women whose conduct in court is nothing short of idiocy. From the man who wears a thousand-pound suit and brash Rolex, only to claim he is impoverished, to the attention-seeking wife who displays more than her emotions to the court, this kind of conduct can undermine the entire legal argument.

I cannot invent a case for a client, but I can advise on subtle detail – so here are some tips I hope you find helpful.

  1. Always dress in a sombre and modest way. Men should refrain from loud check jackets and flashy watches. For women, avoid multi coloured diamond studded nail varnish and see through tops.
  2. Even when the pressure is reaching fever pitch, always behave respectfully and calmly.
  3. Don’t lose your temper or you will lose your case.
  4. Take your time answering questions.
  5. If you don’t know the answer, say so.
  6. Don’t ever guess.
  7. If you’ve made a mistake admit it.
  8. Remember the judge has far more experience at who is telling the truth.
  9. Don’t ever think if a load of nonsense sounds good to you, it will to the Judge.
  10. Don’t tip a jug of water over your opponent’s head. While it may make you feel better, it may land you in the cells.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. When to walk away? says:

    […] The smallest detail of a case can be hugely significant – for example, the impact of a client’s courtroom attire is something young lawyers are often surprised […]

  2. Annette says:

    Having sat on the “other side” as a disabled person who was denied a benefit, I am surprised to see Marilyn Stowe air her fixed views in public.

    Disabled people have to plan and survive in the most awful circumstances and many take painkillers and steroids to get through the physical rigours of a tribunal.

    The tribunal is supposed to point out any inconsistancies to the disabled person but few do.

    I had a Tribunel decision set aside because the panel members did not interprete the law correctly in this manner.

    Strange that Ms Stowe didn’t mention it in this highly offensive “guide”.

    She needs to learn to see things from the other side. A disabled person deserves more respect than this.

  3. marilynstowe says:

    Hi Annette – thanks for your comment. If my comments about DSS tribunals offended you, I can only apologise profusely.

    I can assure you that during the sessions I chaired, applicants were fully informed of their rights and the law was rigorously applied.

    Moreover, I would like to emphasise that although I chaired the hearings for those appealing earlier decisions to deny them various state benefits, the majority of cases involving disabilities did not raise “red flags” for me, nor for the doctor and layperson who sat alongside me. In fact, most cases were straightforward. It is a matter for regret that – as cases such as this one ( and this one ( demonstrate – there will always be a small number of dishonest individuals who attempt to “game the system”.

    With best wishes,

    Marilyn Stowe

  4. Any Questions? By guest blogger Robin Charrot. | Marilyn Stowe Family Law and Divorce Blog says:

    […] For most court hearings, you will not play a speaking role. However there are still a few rules to follow. Use common sense: don’t lose your temper, don’t glare at your spouse and don’t sigh, tut or mutter when your spouse’s lawyer is speaking. Pay attention to what is being said. To get your lawyer’s attention, write a short note and tap them on the shoulder. But please don’t do this every five minutes! For further tips see Marilyn Stowe’s post, How To Act In Court. […]

  5. Danny Singh says:

    Hi there Marilyn I am due to e in court on October the 19th. i am a victim of gbh without intent, and abh from another person, i was also glassed in the terrible ordeal i suffered, I am so nervous about going court and everything, from your knowledge how do cases with someone with no previous history and only on a section 20 wivout intent of glassing me get, i have evidence and scaring to my face for life, i have also good witnesses on my side also but generally would they eat me up in court, i just want justice for ruining my life and face and me losing my confidence i once had but gone forever.

    Kind Regards

    Danny Singh

  6. G. WILLIAMS says:

    What if you have Moderate to Severe Anxiety and carnt stay still without Panicking? Will the Disabilty Board say anything, or will they be looking at my Behaviour or ask me to leave? I get Lower rate on both, Care, Mobilty and have been told by a advisor that, because if I got out, I need someone that I know at the side of me, alsot o come round at night to make sure I’m okay, saftey and wellbeing wise! So would be intitled to, Middle rate care? Does this sound true. Please get back to me ASAP. Thanks G,Williams.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Thank you for writing to my blog. Please do not worry. The Tribunal will not be phased by your behaviour and I’m sure they will do the best to calm you and help you to stop panicking. You should explain how you are feeling and if you need a break, them ask for one. I’m sorry but I dont deal with this type of case so I can’t give you any advice about your claim. Your local CAB may be able to help.
      Very best wishes,

  7. A question of timing - Marilyn Stowe Blog says:

    […] On this week in 2008: How to act in court […]

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