Guide to a Czech courtroom: Rules of conduct during a court hearing in Prague and beyond
This article presents a brief explanation of basic rules of conduct in a Czech courtroom during civil proceedings. How should one behave, what to do and what to avoid? I wrote this article mainly with divorce, child custody and marital property settlement cases in mind but it is generally applicable to all civil proceedings.
Most people are probably familiar with court proceedings in the US, be it from live broadcast or TV drama. Czech courts are different as there are no juries, only professional judge or a senate of judges. Also, rules of conduct within the courtroom are different.
Entering the court building
Court buildings in the Czech Republic are publicly accessible to anybody. However, they are secured and protected by the so called “Judicial Guard”, which is a law enforcement agency separate from Police.
All visitors must undergo security search for weapons. This is similar to an airport security search, i.e. metal detector frame and x-raying of briefcases, handbags, etc. Also all pockets must be emptied and content inspected.
No weapons are allowed within the court buildings. Self-defense weapons such as a pepper spray or a knife can be stored with the Judicial Guard upon entry. Courthouses also have small safes for visitor’s firearms and the visitor typically keeps the only key to the safe. Pepper sprays, knives, etc. are usually stored directly with the Guard while visitor receives a token. If you need to store weapons, inform the Guard before entering the building and don’t draw them before Guard instructs you to do so.
Security search is usually fast and uneventful. However, larger court buildings during early morning and/or early afternoon can experience a rush of visitors. If you are entering the building in such a time, save a few minutes for waiting in a potential queue.
Court hearings are open to public
With some limited exceptions, court hearings in the Czech Republic are open to the public. Most courtrooms however have only limited seating capacity for public. Apart from medialized cases, it is unusual for general public to visit court hearings.
If you want to, you can bring your family or friends to see the court hearing. However, if those have any connection to the case and/or may be called up as witnesses, they cannot be present before their testimony was concluded. If you enter as general public, expect that the judge may ask why you are in the courtroom, as well as they may ask the parties to confirm that neither of them plan to call you up as a witness.
On the other hand, people who were called up as witnesses can remain in the court room as general public after conclusion of their witness examination.
General rules of conduct within the courtroom
The following is a translation of original rules of conduct that you may find listed in front of the courtroom:
When entering the courtroom and within it, a head cover must be taken off. Members of Law Enforcement, while on duty during the court hearing, as well as women, when permitted by rules of social conduct, are exempt from this obligation.
People present must remain seated during the entire court hearing.
One may ask questions and present comments only with the permission of the President of the Senate (or single judge). It is permitted to speak to the President of the Senate (single judge) only while standing, no matter how short the speech may be. The speech must be loud and clear.
Court decision shall be heard by all present while standing.
Court personnel as well as other present persons shall address each other as sir/madame (pane, paní, slečno,) while adding their function or procedural status that they have during the proceedings (e.g. Mr. President, Mr. Associate Judge, Mr. Defender, Mr. Doctor, Mrs. State Attorney, Mr. Expert Witness, Mr. Witness, etc.).
The court proceedings and its dignity shall not be violated in any way. In particular, it is forbidden to talk loud within the court room without permission of the President of the Senate (single judge). Further, it is forbidden to eat, drink or smoke, and that even during the brake.
The proceedings are managed by the President of the Senate (single judge), whose instructions are binding for all present.
The President of the Senate also decides whether it will be permitted to make video recording of the proceedings or to conduct live video or audio streaming from the court room.
It is forbidden to enter the court room with any weapon, apart from member of Law Enforcement who are on duty during the court proceedings.
A person who disturbs courtroom order in violation of this instruction or who behaves in an offensive manner may be fined. Severe disturbance may lead to expulsion from the court room by the President of the Senate (single judge).
As of 2022, the fine mentioned above may be as high as CZK 50.000,- and it may be imposed repeatedly. Severe disturbance may also constitute a crime of disorderly conduct which is punishable by up to two years imprisonment.
What to expect
Participants as well as general public wait for the start of the court hearing outside of the courtroom. They will be called at appointed time. Hearings which take place later during the day may by delayed by preceding hearing.
Upon entering the courtroom, plaintiff takes place on the judge’s right-hand side and defendant on the other. Public seats are usually opposite to the judge. In the middle, there is a witness stand, between the parties and straight opposite to the judge (with back to the general public).
Witness statements are provided from the witness stand. Typically, the judge asks questions first, then the party which invited the witness and then the opposing party. The witness (or party, if they are providing testimony) are free to use their notes or underlying documentation. The judge may request to examine the notes and documentation used by the witness.
In most disputes, majority of the asking and commenting is done by the parties (attorneys) while the judge is generally less involved. Special proceedings, like child custody cases, are governed by different rules with greater involvement of the judge. In child custody proceedings, the children will be represented by a court appointed representative (usually the social services) who has the same standing as the parties.
A formal record of the proceedings is made. The practice of making record varies from court to court and judge to judge:
- Some judges use typist to whom they dictate the formal record during the court hearing. This is usually a shortened version of what is currently transpiring (being told) in the courtroom.
- Some judges use a recorder to which they dictate the formal record. It is later put into writing either by computer program or a typist.
- Some court rooms have multiple microphones and make complete recording which is then put into writing as direct speech (typical for criminal proceedings, less usual in civil cases).
As you are reading this article in English, you will probably need a translator. One will be appointed for you by the court once the judge is made aware that you need them. Beware that translation significantly slows down proceedings. Also, your lawyer should be familiar with the language. Long witness statements often result in mistakes by the interpreter. Your lawyer cannot serve as interpreter.
Quality of interpreters varies. It may be advisable to also make own recording of the court hearing in order to be later able to request correction of the written record or mistranslation. Making of audio recording by a party or guest must be announced to the judge and judge cannot forbid it. Making of video recording or live streaming audio and video requires judge’s consent and it may be denied.
Czech court proceedings are very formal. It is important to understand that there are crucial milestones in the proceedings, missing of which cannot be corrected later. Make sure you have proper legal representation from the very beginning.
- Wear formal clothes, either business professional or business casual.
- During peak hours, come in advance as there may be a queue for security check.
- Plaintiff sits on the right-hand side of judge, defendant on the other.
- Speak only when permitted by the judge. Always stand up when speaking.
- When providing testimony, always talk to the judge, not to the parties (their attorneys). There is no dialogue, only asking and answering of questions.
- Make sure you are hydrated as it is forbidden to drink/eat within the courtroom.
- If necessary, ask for a short brake in order to visit bathroom, drink or eat.
- Ask your attorney for clarifications or additional information.
If you are looking for an attorney in the Czech Republic, don’t hesitate to contact me.