Divorce and Family Court Decorum in Rhode Island - Simple Tips for Represented Litigants
December 18, 2016
By: Christopher A. Pearsall, RI Divorce and Family Court Lawyer*
a.k.a. The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠
I realized 10 years ago that not everyone could afford a lawyer to represent them in court. Sure, there were some organizations that provided volunteer lawyers or lawyers who would take on a Pro Bono case in Rhode Island. The trouble was that they were quickly saturated with people who wanted a free lawyer for their case. Yet there wasn't a service that I could find that offered help to individuals so they could represent themselves properly in their own divorces. So in 2006 I became the Rhode Island Divorce Coach to do just that less than the cost of typical representation.
Recently I was reminded of a few lessons I give people in courtroom decorum. As lawyers I suppose we treat these things as commonplace or perhaps even common sense. They aren't common sense to everyone though. Sometimes, they aren't followed by long time practicing attorneys.
I've always thought stories are the best teachers so let me give you an example. Keep in mind that " . . . " means that someone was trying to continue talking.
The Divorce of Todd McFadden vs. Sarah Jacobsen
Todd McFadden and his wife Sarah Jacobsen were getting divorced. Todd was the filing party ("Plaintiff"). Sarah was the party served with the initial Rhode Island divorce complaint ("Defendant"). Todd's lawyer filed a Motion for Temporary Orders. Sarah's lawyer objected to that motion.. Here is how the dialogue went in the courtroom.
JUDGE: So we're here on Plaintiff's Motion for Temporary Orders, correct counsel?
Todd's Lawyer: Yes, your Honor.
JUDGE: Okay counsel, I'll hear from you first. Then I'll hear from Defendant's counsel.
Todd's Lawyer: Your honor we are moving for Orders allowing only the Plaintiff to be the one to bring the two minor children to their soccer practices and games.
JUDGE: Reasoning counsel?
Todd's Lawyer: The Defendant mother already has a boyfriend only 4 weeks into this divorce. She has been exposing these minor children to this boyfriend. She and the boyfriend pick up and drop off the children to their soccer practices and games. It's our position and hopefully the court's that to prevent confusion or irreparable damage to the children at this delicate time in this family's life that it's in the best interests of the children that the Plaintiff be the one who drops off and/or picks up the children.
JUDGE: Okay, defendant's counsel may I hear your objection.
Sarah's Lawyer: Thank you. My client's objection is that she has always brought the children to their soccer practices and games and to change their routine would be detrimental to the children's routine during the divorce.
JUDGE: But counsel I'm sure you understand that exposing the minor children to her boyfriend before this case is finished is poor judgment and could damage the children and . . .
Sarah: He's not my boyfriend. He . . .
Todd: Judge, he is too her boyfriend! C'mon Sarah, I've had an investigator following you since before I filed for divorce.
JUDGE: Counsel, kindly get your client's under control. They should be aware how we do things in a court of law.
Both Lawyers: Yes, Judge.
[Each lawyer whispers to their client.]
Judge: So, we have mom who's always been bringing the children to soccer practices and games routinely but now she's bringing them with an alleged boyfriend who supposedly the Plaintiff can verify with a private detective who has been following them. So I'd . . .
Sarah's Lawyer: Judge we don't think he's been having her followed at all and . . .
Judge: [Facial Expression at Sarah's lawyer) As I was saying, I'm be inclined to want to keep mom bringing the children for consistency since she's always done it [Todd whispers to his lawyer] yet because of this boyfriend issue . . .
Todd: What? But she hasn't....
Todd's Lawyer: [Putting his hand on Todd's shoulder to silence him.] But judge mom hasn't been routinely . . .
Judge: [To Todd's Lawyer]: Counsel, was I speaking? I believe I was and ....
Todd's Lawyer: Yes Judge, but...
Judge: That's enough. I've heard you both. Plaintiff's Motion is denied. I'm ordering that the Defendant mother shall continue to bring the minor children to and from their soccer practices and games but she is prohibited from bringing any unrelated person of the opposite sex with her on pickups and drop offs.
Todd's Lawyer: But . . .
Todd's Lawyer: Judge please note my exception to your decision for the record.
Judge: So noted.
You would be amazed how big some things that seem so small can be so big. Hopefully you were able to identify the three (3) big lessons in courtroom etiquette that can be learned from this simple little exchange. After you look at them, see if you can figure out which things made the biggest difference.
1. Let Counsel Speak for You: If you've hired a lawyer, then you've hired him or her for a reason. Lawyers are hired for their expertise in a particular area of law including the manner in which the court should be addressed. In this case it was divorce and the family court system. So let the lawyer do what you hired him or her to do. When you have a lawyer a client who jumps in and speaks directly to the judge without being asked to do so directly by the judge or their lawyer is considered being rude and shows a lack of respect for the court. Whatever your good intentions may be, keep your mouth shut until your lawyer or the judge ask you to address the court, otherwise you are most likely going to hurt your case. If you look back in the dialogue above, you will see that both Todd and Sarah addressed the judge directly and the judge actually scolded their attorneys and told them to get their client's under control. They both hurt their cases by not having their attorneys address what needed to be said instead of speaking out of turn without the court's permission.
2. Don't Speak to the Other Party: Unless the court has requested that there be direct discussion between the two parties while in a court hearing, don't do it! , then do not directly talk to the other party. If you were going to directly talk to the other party in the first instance you should not be in court at all and you should have been able to resolve the matter without even being in court. Once again, this is considered rude and disrespectful to the court, especially when you have hired a lawyer who is responsible for presenting your case to the court. In this case look at the testimony. Todd directly addressed Sarah and while the tone isn't evident the wording leads us to believe that he was using a condescending tone. Todd hurt his case with the judge here and started sending his own motion on a downward spiral.
3. Don't Interrupt the Judge: When the judge is talking, even if what the judge is saying seems wrong, you do not interrupt the judge. That is not only rude but it is one of the biggest offenses to a judge and with good reason. You are before the court asking for something. If the judge is speaking and you interrupt, then you have now offended the very person that you are asking to give you some relief. If you were going to ask someone for a short term loan and before you gave them the loan you did something that was a slap in the face to the person, you just decreased the chances of getting that loan by more than 50%. The same is true for court. It is a place of respect. You disrespect the person running your hearing in that court and it's just like a slap in the fact. Here, after Sarah interrupted the judge, Todd continued the interruption. Why is that significant? Because Todd should have had enough time and common sense to mentally process that Sarah had done something wrong that he should not do, namely interrupt the judge. Yet he not only continued the interruption of the judge, making it longer and wasting the court's time but he also interrupted Sarah and spoke directly to her, neither of which he should have done. Todd compounded the problem. If Todd had looked at the judge he might well have caught a cue from the judge's facial expressions or mannerisms that he/she was not happy about it.
Which way to do you think the judge would have ruled if Todd had interrupted the judge and spoke directly to Sarah? If he had asked his attorney to address the issue and the attorney had done so correctly, what to you thing the result would have been then?
Can you see that the judge seemed to be going in Todd's direction until he and the lawyer opened their mouths in a disrespectful manner to the court?
Do you think Todd's lawyer could have salvaged this motion and won it?
When you are represented by a lawyer in a Rhode Island divorce case or otherwise, take your cues from the lawyer. It is all too easy to let your emotions get the better of you and make grievous mistakes in etiquette that end up losing you a motion or your entire case.
In my professional opinion, this motion was not lost in this case based on the law, facts or evidence. Todd's motion was lost in this court hearing solely due to disrespect of the court and the presiding judge.
*Note: Any resemblance to any real persons or situations currently before the court is merely coincidental and/or accidental.