Are there any rules about what you can say and do in court?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Just as there are numerous court rules for documents, there are also many rules for behaving and presenting in court. The basic understanding about courtroom decorum is that anyone who comes to court to argue a case will show respect for the court by demonstrating self-control, communicating precisely, and following the court rules. Even spectators have to behave according to court standards. Usually, this means being quiet, standing when the judge enters, and not interrupting the court proceedings. But in Minnesota, the Supreme Court ruled  in August, 2015 that people cannot even enter the courtroom to watch a case unless they present photo identification. This ruling did not mention homeless people, but it will result in excluding some homeless people from watching cases.

Not showing respect for the court, by talking out of turn or disregarding the judge’s standards, etc… can be seen as showing contempt for the court. If the judge does consider behavior as contemptuous, he can have an offending gallery member removed from the courtroom and an offending litigant fined or jailed.

In addition to basic decorum, rules of evidence are very important in the courtroom. These are the rules that govern what kind of proof each party can present. The limitation preventing irrelevant information from coming into a case is an example of a rule of evidence.

Another important evidence rule is the hearsay rule. In federal courts and in state courts there is always some version of a hearsay rule saying that witnesses in court can only testify about what they have experienced; they cannot testify about things they heard other people say.

There are some exceptions to hearsay rules. Words spoken by someone about to die can be presented in court by a surviving witness. Documents kept in the regular course of business can be presented as evidence on their own, without their author being present. Usually, there are between twenty and twenty-five exceptions to a court system’s hearsay rule.

Another important rule to know about is the character evidence rule which says that descriptions of a person’s character are not allowed to be entered as proof that he did what he is accused of doing. For example, when a defendant is accused of committing fraud (misrepresenting facts to someone who lost money relying on those facts) a witness cannot be brought to say, “Jimmy’s a liar. He lied to me about the condition of his lawnmower when I bought it from him.” That sort of testimony might get the jury to assume that the defendant committed the fraud just because this person from years ago knew of his lying in a completely different situation.

Because of the prejudices and misconceptions that exist about homeless people, it is necessary to listen for innuendos about laziness or dishonesty or irrationality that a court opponent might be trying to state as evidence of a homeless person’s character.

Dealing with the rules of evidence gets especially tricky because there is an understanding that an opponent might not mind if the other party wants to present hearsay or an unauthenticated object or a surprise. So, litigants are required to notify the judge, during a trial, when they object to the presentation of evidence that violates the rules.

They do this by immediately declaring something like, “your honor, I object to the prosecutor’s question because it invites the witness to talk about something irrelevant to this case.” Then, the judge makes an instant decision about whether the attempted evidence presentation would violate the rules. If the judge sustains the objection, it means that the evidence will not be allowed. If the judge overrules the objection, it means that the evidence will be allowed because it does not violate the rules.

In order to properly communicate with the court and opponents in a lawsuit, you have to follow court rules.The four basic categories of court rules are:

  • Rules of Civil Procedure
  • Rules of Criminal Procedure
  • Rules of Evidence
  • Rules of Appellate Procedure

The rules are available from numerous sources:

  • The court’s Web site:



If you are looking for print sources instead of electronic sources, look in libraries for paperback books of court rules or for the print versions of the statutory codes.

In addition to the official rules of court, every judge has standards for behavior in the courtroom. Some judges like the participants to introduce themselves in a particular way. Some judges don’t allow lawyers and pro se litigants to tell stories to set a scene. Some judges demand a conference in chambers to try to settle the case instead of having a trial.

To be sure that litigants satisfy these preferences, judges generally publish them in their biographies on the court’s Web site or mail them in a letter to each party. A litigant who does not live at an address might be able to receive court-related mail in care of a social service agency where he regularly receives services. As an alternative to that, or in addition to it, he can ask the judge’s clerk if the judge has any courtroom behavior preferences.  A homeless litigant can also make arrangements to check-in with the judge’s clerk on a weekly basis to find out whether any scheduled events have changed or to see if the opponent has filed new documents, or if there is any other kind of news or activity connected with his case.

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