Your first appearance in front of the court is what you’ve been working too for that past few weeks. I was very excited and couldn’t wait for the day to finally appear in front of the Magistrate for the first time.
The more I thought about it the more nervous I got. I didn’t know what to expect and really didn’t know what to say, or what to wear. Google didn’t give me the answers I was looking for and as a result I had to ask other CA’s and attorneys what its like, what to do, and how to address the court.
From my research I knew a little bit of what to expect, but I was still very uncertain and stressed about it for days on end. In most cases, your first appearance will be something simple such as a postponement.
Whatever the type of first appearance you have get the file before hand, don’t wait until the day of the appearance. Read the file, this is so that you know what the case is about, how many times it has been postponed, why it was postponed etc.
My first appearance was for a clients traffic violation. It was a first appearance and this in it self left me a bit more at ease.
We’ll look at how a postponement would be like in a criminal matter to show what to do.
The first important step
Try and get to court early, don’t get there at 5 to 9 if court starts at 9. There are a few steps to take before you can appear in court, without a Magistrate scolding you like a naughty child. Figure out where the prosecutors office is and go introduce yourself. Inform her of who your client is, and discuss what your instructions are.
If for instance you know that you will postpone the matter tell her about it, don’t wait till your in court and then surprise them. Inform the prosecutor that you have not appeared before the Magistrate and ask if they want to accompany you when you introduce yourself.
Proceed to introduce yourself to the Magistrate. There is no need to have a lengthy conversation, a simple introduction of who you are and for which firm you work will do. You can simple say that today will be your first appearance before him and you wanted to introduce yourself. Some magistrates will ask you some questions, keep your answers short and to the point. In chambers you can address the Magistrate as sir or madam.
ALWAYS ALWAYS remember to take your certificate of appearance with you!!! Most Magistrates will request this. They want to make sure you can appear before them, do not be caught off guard without it…
You have to do this with every new magistrate you appear before, even if you’re an admitted attorney.
Make sure your client is at court and talk to them about the case. Inform them that you have arranged a postponement with the prosecutor or that you will ask court for a postponement (If that is your instruction). Never leave your client in the dark, you are there on her instruction and she must have a say in things.
First steps in Court
Never put your robe on in court. Some say this rule only applies if court has started, but it’s a safer option to always put your gown on outside and then enter court. When you enter court and its already in session, bow towards the magistrate and then proceed to find a seat.
If court has not yet started, the Magistrate will walk in and the court orderly will say the famous phrase “All rise”. Simply stand and wait for the Magistrate to sit. He will bow towards the court and everyone in court bows back. It is not necessary for you to do a complete 90 degree bend, a simple lean forward with your head down will be sufficient. Wait for the Magistrate to sit before you take your seat.
Some of the courts are small and will only have a couple of chairs available for attorneys. Remember to always let the senior attorneys find a seat first before you sit down.
Case gets called
The matter will be called by either the prosecutor or a clerk of the court. The prosecutor will then address the court. She states who the accused is, if he is on bail or warning, what the charges are. She will further shortly brief the court and why the matter is on the roll. Then you will get your chance to address the court. If you arranged a date for postponement with the prosecutor before hand, she will state this to the court.
You simply stand up and start of by saying “May it please the court”. There after u say that u are appearing on behalf of your client “I appear on behalf of the accused. We have no objection to the date/postponement”.
If no date was arranged for the postponement, then you will ask permission for postponement. Something in the line of “Your Worship, we request a postponement of the matter to a later date”. Also state the reasons why you are asking for the matter to be heard at a later date.
In most instances the Magistrate will ask a few questions to either you or to the prosecutor. When the Magistrate makes his decision always say “As it pleases the court”. Don’t just get your things and move out. Stand up, and say “Your Worship, that completes my roll for today, may I be excused?”.
Only after the Magistrate has given you permission can you can leave court. Don’t forget to bow to the bench as you leave the door, remember court is now in session.
As you step out of court your client will be waiting for you and might have some questions. Make sure she understands what is happening and what the purpose of the postponement is. You must explain the steps to your client in detail, most clients are inexperienced and stress about everything.
You should take your robe off before you leave the court building. It is frowned upon to go walking in the street with it on.
You made it through your first appearance, now you can relax. With every appearance it will get easier as you get more at ease. A lesson that Senior Counsel taught me. The day you do not feel butterflies in your stomach before appearing, is the day that you should not appear. He stated that if you get too comfortable mistakes are made.
Last minute advice
Many candidates and even some attorneys tend to say ‘I confirm my appearance’ when it’s a first appearance. You cant confirm your appearance as you have not been before court for this matter. Only if you appear for a second time for the same person do you say “I confirm my appearance”.
Another common mistake is when you first stand to address the court. Don’t say “as it pleases the court” you say “may it please the court”. As it pleases the court is used as a confirmation of what the presiding officer has said. Mat it please is a sort of introduction or asking of permission to stand.
Stand in front of the mirror and practice what your going to say. Play the scenario in your head. Write down what you have to say or what you need to ask. If you ever get stuck look at your notes for that case.