Court; The theatre of the legal world where the law comes to life. An experience that can be unforgettable and fascinating in equal measure. For anyone interested in seeing the law in practice, but who hasn’t attended before it will likely be slightly daunting. I remember thinking that the multitude of formalities felt nothing short of alien. For instance, you may not leave the courtroom when judgment is being handed down.
Below I have laid out what I consider to be the most important rules to obey while viewing court proceedings. The list is not intended to be exhaustive—further suggestions are welcome—and is not compiled in order of importance. They each carry equal merit.
Officially there is no dress code for visitors to English courts. Bearing this in mind, an element of discretion should be applied. It cannot be stressed enough that t-shirts or other items of clothing carrying potentially offensive or inappropriate slogans should be avoided. The same can be said for shorts or any other item deemed revealing. Headwear should not be worn unless for religious reasons. It is very important that you feel comfortable, both literally and in yourself. Often unpredictable, the length of a sitting ranges from a mere five minutes to an entire day. This should be factored in when considering what to wear—in my opinion layers work well. As American blogger Crystal Intini Alperin advises: “[t]imes have changed, are changing and will continue to change, but dressing appropriately is timeless. It’s a sign of respect”
Turn off all electronic devices (… or better still don’t bring them in)
Before entering court all electronic devices MUST be turned off. The Central Criminal Court, or “Old Bailey”, outright bans mobile phones and other electronic equipment. This is not an uncommon practice applied to members of the public. It is an offence to use mobile phones or undertake any recording of proceedings. If found guilty of contempt “in the face of” court, the defendant risks either a custodial sentence or fine of varying amounts, depending on the Act under which they are charged.
Bow to the Magistrate or Judge
When entering or leaving the courtroom it is the “done thing” to bow to the Magistrate(s) or Judge(s). This tradition has a curious origin, owing itself to the presence of the Royal Arms which sits behind the bench where the judges or magistrates sit. As persons enter the room, whether court officials, lawyers or members of the public, it is customary to “bow” to the Royal Coat of Arms—and indirectly those presiding over the case. This is in recognition of the fact that justice stems from the Monarch and that law courts are part of the Royal Court. You should also stand up from your seat when the judge or magistrate enters the room, “all rise” will be declared, in another show of respect for them as representatives of the Crown.
Avoid Eating or Drinking
Like the above on the use (or rather not) of electronic devices, eating and drinking in court is strictly prohibited and could leave you being held in contempt of court if you flout this ban. If for medical reasons you need to eat, it is best to silently excuse yourself from the courtroom and sort yourself out before re-entering. Amazingly, the rule usually even extends to water. So if in doubt, check.
In line with the principle of open justice, note-taking is allowed in most court hearings. It is good practice to obtain the permission of the judge beforehand, either by asking the court clerk on the day or making an enquiry prior to the hearing. This is a courtesy rather than legal requirement however. In certain cases it might be that the judge announces note-taking is prohibited, or requests the public to leave the gallery where the forthcoming proceedings are not to be reported.
If all else fails and you remain unsure about any aspect of the court procedure my general advice is to ask an usher or other member of staff.