Judge with at bench holding a clock

It is important to show respect for the court, and that includes the judge presiding over your case. Not only does that judicial officer have great power over the pending matter, but the judge is a symbol of the rule of law in our nation. We’ve written previously on the importance of proper courtroom attire, now for a quick primer – don’t be late to court!

You would think this goes without saying – be there at least 5 minutes before the hearing starts to give you time to settle in, get your file & papers ready for the hearing, etc. To avoid being late for court, allow yourself time to get through security (in El Paso County that especially means arriving early on Mondays and Tuesdays when the line is filled with potential jurors). And if you are driving, allow yourself plenty of extra time for traffic & parking – if you’re early, you can always plan on grabbing a cup of coffee while you wait.

Consequences of Being Late to Court

While most of the time being late to court may result in little more than an irate judge while the hearing proceeds, one woman learned the hard way of the more serious consequences that can result from being late for your hearing, at least when the judge does not want to keep dozens of potential jurors waiting for a late party.

In C.C., a respondent mother in a dependency & neglect case had a jury trial scheduled for 1 p.m, but she was late to court. At the appointed time, her counsel and the child’s Guardian ad Litem were present, but when the mother did not show up by 1:10 p.m., the judge dismissed the jurors and converted the jury trial into a bench trial. The judge did not even ask why the mother was running late, or whether the counsel who were present wanted to proceed in her absence.

(Note that while in family law cases there is no right to a jury trial, this was a D&N case where the respondent has that right.)

The mother’s counsel objected, and said that the mother was apparently “somewhere in the building”. She finally showed up around 30 minutes late to court. While apologetic for having to release the jury, the judge explained to her that he could not keep everyone waiting, and the rules are clear – if the party is not there, he/she waives the right to a jury.

The court proceeded with a bench trial, rather than having a jury, and the judge adjudicated the children dependent and neglected (i.e. the mother lost). The mother appealed, and the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed.

Appeal – Being Late to Court Not Remove Right to Jury

The appellate court first noted that while there was no constitutional right to a jury trial in state civil cases, that right is provided for in Colorado law: “any respondent… may demand a trial by jury of six persons at the adjudicatory hearing.” C.R.S. 19-3-202(2)

However, that right is not absolute, and may be lost. Per Colo. R. Civ. P. 39(a)(3), “The trial shall be by jury of all issues so demanded unless… all parties demanding trial by jury fail to appear at trial.”

The issue in this case is what happens when the counsel appears on time, but the party herself is late to court? Can the judge release the jurors after what the Court of Appeals characterized as waiting “a mere ten minutes after the scheduled start time”? C.C., ¶ 17. The trial judge had options which should have been exercised before simply declaring that the mother had waived the right to a jury trial, so reversed the judgment against her:

“Under these circumstances, we conclude that the mother’s failure to appear for trial on time did not constitute a waiver — either express or implied — of her statutory right to a jury trial. In reaching this conclusion, we do not suggest that a parent can never waive her right to a jury trial by being late. However, before a court determines whether a waiver has occurred, it should inquire further about the parent’s whereabouts and the circumstances concerning her absence before converting a jury trial to a bench trial. Especially when the mother’s counsel and GAL were there on time and ready to proceed, the court should have inquired about the mother’s whereabouts and, if satisfied that she would appear promptly or that she had a good reason for her tardiness, should have given her additional time to arrive before releasing the jurors. The court failed to make such inquiries or accommodations, and while its concern about inconveniencing the jurors was understandable, it was an insufficient reason to overcome the mother’s statutory right to a jury trial.”

C.C., ¶ 17.

In other words, being late to court is not without consequences, and they may well include losing the right to a jury trial. However, that would be the last step after inquiry from the trial judge into why the parent was late, especially when the other parties were present and ready for the hearing.

Don’t Be Late to Court!

Judge upset that a party is late to courtJudge upset that a party is late to court

The takeaway? If you are late to court, you not only risk incurring the rath of the judge (who has a busy docket which must be managed), but as the C.C. case indicates, you may lose valuable rights, even though in that case the denial of those rights was found to be inappropriate.

I started my legal career as an Army JAG officer, where being late was not simply discourteous, it was actually a crime! (Called “failure to repair). And that’s being late anywhere – to formation, to a meeting, and yes, even being late to court. So the importance of being on time for court was instilled at an early stage in my career, and that has continued for the 22 years I have been a civilian family law attorney.

I have had numerous cases where the other party (never my own client!) or counsel was late to court, by maybe 5 minutes or so. And most of the time the judge either sits patiently, or handles other matters while waiting on the tardy participants. But I have had several cases where being late to court, or even missing completely, resulted in some consequences.

Attorney & Party Both Missed Hearing

In one hearing I had, both the opposing counsel and his client were not just late to court, they did not even show up for the hearing. After about 10 minutes, the magistrate simply entered a default judgment for my client on the temporary orders issues. As we were leaving the courtroom, we noticed the other party (without her lawyer) wandering the halls, and we had better go back into the courtroom with her to avoid this becoming a problem later.

It turns out that she had a meeting scheduled with her attorney, but the lawyer never showed, and she was late to court because she was wandering the halls looking for the right courtroom. The judge was understanding, and then just reset our hearing, vacating the default judgment. As for the lawyer, unfortunately he had substance abuse issues, and this was not his first time, so he was eventually suspended from the practice of law.

Party 15 Minutes Late for Court Hearing

In another case, the judge was a retired military officer who, like me, had the importance of timeliness instilled in him. Both attorneys and my client were in the courtroom on time, and after about 10 minutes, the judge decided that since the opposing counsel was there, to the extent the other party was late, he had waived his right to be present.

The judge therefore directed that we start the hearing without the other party, who arrived just a few minutes into my direct examination of my client. Ultimately, no harm done.

Pro Se Party Missed Hearing

Finally, I have had several cases where a pro se party on the other side (that’s a litigant who did not hire an attorney) has missed the hearing. The judge will typically verify that proper notice was sent, ask the counsel who is there if he/she has had any contact with that absent party, and then ultimately proceed as a default hearing.

Being Late to Court FAQ

What happens if you are late to court?

Do not be late for court and if you are unavoidably late, call the court clerk. If you are lucky, the judge may just be a bit miffed, and your case will start late. But in some cases, the court may start the hearing without you, deprive you of rights, such as the right to a jury, or enter a default judgment against you.

What happens if your lawyer is late for court?

There is nothing worse than everyone waiting on a tardy lawyer, but as long as the client is there, the judge would not proceed without your lawyer, nor enter a default judgment against you. So either your case would be delayed until the lawyer shows up, or the hearing would be continued to another date. But that lawyer will take a hit to his/her reputation, and absent an outstanding excuse, it may be time for a new attorney.

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