So, you're facing a charge by police and have to appear in court. Sure, you can go to court by yourself and face the magistrate alone. That is your right. But most of the time, it's best to have a lawyer by your side to argue your case.

I spend a lot of time in the Local Court defending people charged with offences ranging from traffic infringements and petty theft through to drugs, bad public behaviour, family disputes and physical altercations.

In my experience, many people underestimate the processes involved, the specific courtroom procedures they must follow and the emotional pressure they'll experience if they decide to represent themselves.

What you need to consider before deciding to represent yourself

I see many people who go to court believing they can handle their case themselves. They think they can simply tell the magistrate that they're innocent and will be able to walk out, free as a bird.

However, there are several common mistakes people make when representing themselves in court. Often, they don't fully understand the procedures, they get flustered or emotional when addressing the court and will sometimes argue with the police prosecutor or the magistrate.

Many also plead guilty without seeing all the evidence or understanding the consequences of a guilty plea. They also expect their case to be finished quickly. It rarely is.

Before deciding to represent yourself in court, it's important to understand the intricacies fully. You can find valuable resources on self-representation on both the Supreme Court of NSW website and the NSW State Library website.

Understanding court etiquette is essential

Judges and magistrates like to see the accused taking the court procedure seriously. They will often form an opinion based on how the accused presents themself - from the way they dress to their behaviour and manners.

Following court etiquette is important. This includes bowing the head upon entering and leaving the courtroom, standing when the judicial officer enters or leaves the courtroom and using the correct form of address such as "Your Honour". This is a demonstration of respect for the office they hold and for the court.

How legal representation can help your defence if you have to go to court

If you're required to go to court, having a lawyer by your side to present your legal defence in the best possible light can make all the difference to how the magistrate or judge will weigh the case.

Your lawyer will be able to present the good attributes of your character and refer to the circumstances surrounding your requirement to go to court. They can stress your family ties, the impact a conviction will have on your employment, and how you have tried your best to meet your obligations.

Your lawyer can use legal defences they think best support your case. This can be particularly important when it comes to sentencing.

For many people, especially those involved in family law matters, having a lawyer put their case forward helps to put a professional distance between themselves and what are often very emotional matters.

Outcome of a court case can have a prolonged impact on your life

Some people fail to take their court appearance seriously. They think they'll just plead guilty, cop the fine or small prison time, put it behind them and move on with no further consequences.

However, a conviction even on a relatively minor matter can have long-lasting implications which can impact your employment prospects, travel options and ability to obtain a working with children permit.

Foreigners convicted of a crime could face deportation

Under Division 9 - Deportation of the Migration Act 1958, a court decision for non-citizens can result in deportation. Australian migration law mandates the deportation of foreigners who have been sentenced to at least 12 months in prison. More than 4,000 people have been deported under this law. (See also General Direction - Criminal Deportation - No. 9.)

The Migration Amendment (Strengthening the Character Test) Bill which is now before parliament will permit the cancellation of visas where a person is convicted of an offence punishable by at least two years in prison - regardless of whether they were imprisoned for less time, or imprisoned at all.

For Australians, an arrest and conviction can mean being barred from some countries. For instance, the United States will ask if you've ever been arrested before they will grant a visa.

Engaging a lawyer ensures your case is presented in the best possible manner

If you're required to go to court, it's wise to engage a solicitor.

Not only do they have the expertise and experience to present the best case for you, but they may be able to help you avoid a conviction which would have a long-term detrimental effect on your life.

Mark Warren
Criminal law
Stacks Collins Thompson

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.