The unstated laws behind the courtroom


Justice Simango, Opinion

IN the remarkable novel; Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, the narrator comments on a South African courtroom: “You may not smoke in the Court, you may not whisper or speak or laugh. You must dress decently, and if you are a man, you may not wear your hat unless such is your religion. This is in honour of the judge …and in honour of the Law behind the Judge, and in honour of the People behind the Law”.

On January 15, 2018, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) held ceremonies in Harare, Bulawayo and Masvingo to mark the opening of the 2018 legal year. Chief Justice Luke Malaba officially opened the main gathering at Mashonganyika Building, which houses the Supreme and Constitutional Courts in Harare. In his address, Chief Justice Malaba emphasised the importance of the rule of law and respect of the judiciary as it is a vital branch of the government.

In line with the quotation from the novel which illustrates compliance with rules of behaviour and etiquette in the courtroom, these reflect our respect as citizens, of not only the judge, but more importantly of the law itself and our justice system whose ideals are fairness and equality of treatment.
Etiquette is essential for making a good first impression. This is true especially in the courtroom where there are many stated and unstated rules of conduct for litigants, attorneys, jurors and other attendees.

During the first week of the law courses I attended at a local university, the lecturer there taught the class professional basics of how one should conduct him/herself in a courtroom. He told us that many legal practitioners today are successful in their careers because they are bound to ethics and rules of professionalism.

Every law student is taught that the judge does not only represent the ultimate authority in the court, but also the law. This is why when a person addresses the court; the judge is the main focal point.

Furthermore, I learned that, when the judge enters the courtroom, you stand up and you do not sit down until he/she does. Although some clients and witnesses feel that the courtroom protocols are just too sophisticated for a client, witness or just an ordinary observer, from my experience, paying attention to the courtroom drills may help sway a judge and jury in favour of the defendant.

Be at least 15 to 30 minutes early for court: Being late for your hearing will destroy your morale from within. Arrive at least 15 to 30 minutes prior to the kickoff of the hearing. This allows you to get a seat and get comfortable. Make sure in the 15 to 30 minutes, you consider the time it will take you to go through security. You may be searched before entering the courthouse and/or before entering any particular courtroom. Court security officers may ask to search your belongings.

To be on the professional side, make sure you do not have any pocket knives, food or beverages or anything that may be confiscated. There is no coincidence in the justice system, save yourself the embarrassment.

Apart from considering security checks, you will use the rest of the 30 minutes to check the daily hearing list for the courtroom and time. If the matter in which you are interested in is not on the list, ask a member of the court staff to direct you to the counter where someone can look up where and when the matter is being heard. All this can be done if you arrive on time.

Electronic gadgets are not permitted: Members of the public are not allowed to use electronic devices, for example, cameras, cellphones, recording devices etc. unless the presiding judge orders otherwise. Counsel, parties and members of the media may use electronic devices subject to certain conditions and restrictions. Most court proceedings are open to the public. Sometimes judges may order in camera (in private) (in chambers) proceedings, where mostly cases of national security are involved. If a notice is put on the courtroom door, notifying the public that the hearing is not open to them, do not enter.

Court Attire: Hats or headwear are not permitted except for religious reasons. You will appear polite when you remove your sunglasses before entering the courtroom. I have seen some people who rest their sunglasses just above their forehead, while this may be considered stylish at your friends get together; don’t try this in front of a magistrate. Wear clean and neat clothing, don’t go dressed in a T-shirt, shorts or flip flops.

Every time I put on a suit and a tie, I feel good and I smile frequently to prove my innocence- I recommend you to dress to express when going for court, unless you have an objection.

The court staff is not there to offer the defendant any legal advice; instead it is responsible for maintaining security and decorum in the courtroom. Be fair enough and comply with their directives.

However, as the 2018 legal year rolls out, I encourage everyone who will be taking part in court proceedings not to recycle the old etiquette myths. It is our collective responsibility as citizens to honor the laws behind the courtroom, to honor the law behind the judge and to honor the people behind the law. Let us all rise and keep standing for the practice of good manners and behaviour in all corners of our communities.

-Justice Simango is a Business Etiquette and Grooming Consultant who writes in his own capacity. He is a member of Toastmasters International.

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