Appearing in court is often stressful, because you either have something financial to gain or lose, or your freedom is in jeopardy. Compounded by the stressful nature of court-related appearances is the lack of information about what you should do when you arrive. Often times, people come in without any prior experience at the courthouse and are faced with a sprawling building that contains numerous offices and courtrooms. Below are some helpful tips to keep in mind when you prepare yourself to appear in the Fairfax County Courthouse. While much of this information can also be used for other courthouses in Virginia, they do differ in terms of how and where information can be found.
Before Arriving at the Courthouse
Before you get to the courthouse, you need to check whatever paperwork you have. If you’ve been served with a lawsuit, cited with a ticket, issued a warrant, or subpoenaed for a case, each of those documents will contain the case number, the court in which you are to appear, the time and date of the hearing, and the location of the courthouse. Review that information carefully so you know whether you need to be in the General District Court (GDC), Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (JDR), or Circuit Court (CC).
In Fairfax County, The GDC is divided into civil, criminal, and traffic divisions, which are on different floors and different areas of the courthouse. Traffic cases are on the first, and sometimes, the second floor. Civil and criminal cases are on the second floor, as well. The JDR court has all the courtrooms in one place on the 3rd floor. And, CC has courtrooms on the fourth and fifth floors, but also has informational and clerks’ offices on the third and fourth floors of the courthouse.
The Day of Court
When you arrive at court be sure to come early, especially to the Fairfax County Courthouse. Since most cases begin between 9 and 10 a.m., there is often a huge flood of people coming into the courthouse at the same time. Additionally, in each courthouse you have to submit to some level of search, including taking off shoes, belts, jackets, unpacking electronics, and more. To have sufficient time to get through the doors and security checkpoints with everyone, leave at least a 30 minute window from the time you walk up to the courthouse and the time of your hearing.
How to Locate the Courtroom
Once you are on the right floor, you should consult the electronic screens to locate the appropriate courtroom. Those screens will only show the cases heard in that particular court. For example, if you’re near the traffic courtrooms on the first floor, you will only see GDC traffic cases. If you’re on the fourth or fifth floor, you’ll only see CC cases (civil and criminal).
If you can’t find your name on the screens, you may be in the wrong place, or there may be another issue. Do NOT leave the court if you cannot find your name on the screen. First, double check your paperwork to make sure you are in the correct courthouse and court. Second, if you believe you are in the right place, but your name is not on the board, you should go to the office of the Clerk of the Court in which you are supposed to appear. They will then help you identify if you are in the right place, and if you are, why your name isn’t showing up.
Inside the Courtroom
Once you’ve found the courtroom, you should take a seat inside. Though your paperwork may say your hearing starts at a specific time, that does not mean your case will be heard precisely at that time. The time listed on your paperwork tells what time court begins, but the order in which the cases are called will vary by the judge and cases before the court. Be sure you remain in the courtroom and listen carefully for your name. If you are not in the courtroom when your name is called, your case may be resolved in your absence.
The one exception to waiting inside the courtroom is in JDR. In JDR, the judges call one case at a time. And, because of the sensitive nature of JDR cases, those courtrooms are not held open to the general public. This means you will need to wait outside the courtroom and wait for your case to be called.
When the Judge Calls your Case
Once your case is called, you should inform the judge you are there by standing and saying you are present. The judge may give you additional instructions at that time. You should listen carefully to whatever the judge tells you and act accordingly. If you do not understand something the judge says, be sure to say that, and the judge will clarify what you are supposed to do.
How to Dress for Court
When dressing for court, consider the situation. While most places are jeans and t-shirt friendly in our modern culture, courthouses are a more formal place. If you are going before the judge, you need to be properly attired. Wearing slacks, dress shoes, and a collared shirt are a minimum. Do NOT wear graphic t-shirts, sandals or tennis shoes, or shorts to court. Also make sure you shower, comb your hair, brush your teeth, and otherwise present yourself in the best light possible.
How to Speak in the Courtroom
When talking to the judge, make sure you speak respectfully. You should address them as “Your Honor” or “Judge.” Do not interrupt the judge while he or she is talking. But, if you do not understand something or have a question, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or more information once the judge has finished speaking. Judges are people too, and they handle a lot of cases on a daily basis. While you may only have one case to be heard, they have many and frequently spend the entire day on the bench listening to different cases. Because of this, they appreciate it when you are respectful and listen carefully to their instructions.
Should you have additional questions regarding your court date and how to prepare, please call the attorneys at our Fairfax law office today, and we will be happy to answer your questions.