Clients don’t always realise that how they dress, act and speak are crucial factors that will undoubtedly weigh on a judge’s mind during a case. When there is a decision to be made in favour of the client, or against them, even the smallest details can make a huge difference.
Several years ago I chaired DSS Tribunals which heard appeals from people who had been refused various state benefits. Along with a doctor and a lay person, I would listen to the appellant explaining why they believed benefits had been unfairly denied, which frequently involved the apparent physical incapacity of the individual concerned.
Often the claimants would go to great lengths to describe their ailment in the pre-hearing paperwork. They would, for example, state why it was impossible to sit longer than 10 minutes at a time because of a back condition or to walk any measurable distance without assistance due to various medical reasons.
What they tended to forget, however, was that how they behaved during the tribunal hearing, which usually lasted about 45 minutes, was also taken into account and was equally as important as their written tales.
They would all remember to hobble into the tribunal, but those who were trying it on would invariably be caught out by the panel. As the heat of argument got the better of them, we were able to observe how inhibited they actually were. This behaviour wasn’t always a clincher for me, but it certainly helped me make up my mind – especially when there really was an attempt at fraud.
In a subsequent role, I interviewed lawyers who were applying for Law Society accreditation. While physical incapacity wasn’t an issue, knowledge was, and I honed my interviewing skills to a fine art. By the time I left my post in 2005, around 1,000 lawyers had passed before me for interview, with several thousand more being vetted with written applications. Needless to say, it wasn’t difficult to spot someone who was trying to bluff their way through. Not on my watch they didn’t!
I mention this because I think it is important that clients going into court have some idea of how they are expected to behave. Time and time again I am taken aback by the gross naivety of both men and women whose conduct in court is nothing short of idiocy. From the man who wears a thousand-pound suit and brash Rolex, only to claim he is impoverished, to the attention-seeking wife who displays more than her emotions to the court, this kind of conduct can undermine the entire legal argument.I cannot invent a case for a client, but I can advise on subtle detail – so here are some tips I hope you find helpful.
- Always dress in a sombre and modest way. Men should refrain from loud check jackets and flashy watches. For women, avoid multi coloured diamond studded nail varnish and see through tops.
- Even when the pressure is reaching fever pitch, always behave respectfully and calmly.
- Don’t lose your temper or you will lose your case.
- Take your time answering questions.
- If you don’t know the answer, say so.
- Don’t ever guess.
- If you’ve made a mistake admit it.
- Remember the judge has far more experience at who is telling the truth.
- Don’t ever think if a load of nonsense sounds good to you, it will to the Judge.
- Don’t tip a jug of water over your opponent’s head. While it may make you feel better, it may land you in the cells.
Nicknamed "The Barracuda" for her tenacity, Marilyn Stowe is one of the UK’s most sought after divorce lawyers, and is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law.
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