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What is an Open Court?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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An open court is a court which is open to members of the public. Anyone may attend court, as long as he or she does so without causing a disruption. In some nations, open courts are the norm and members of the public freely attend trials they are interested in. In other regions of the world, courts are more commonly closed, with access being limited to the parties involved and their witnesses.

The proceedings in an open court are documented to create a court record and this record can also later be reviewed by members of the public. If the court needs to hear sensitive information, the court may be temporarily cleared. This may also be the case if there are concerns about witness intimidation or if a witness may be subjected to undue stress by having to testify in front of a crowd. For example, in a case concerning child abuse, the court might be cleared when the child testifies to make the child feel more comfortable.

When material which may be prejudicial in nature needs to be discussed, the court will also be cleared, or the material will be discussed in judge's chambers. This holds true for things like motions and disputes over evidence. In all other cases, however, members of the public will be allowed to remain seated in an open court unless there is a compelling reason to remove them.

While members of the public have a right to attend open court, they cannot disrupt or interfere with the trial. A judge can order audience members removed if they become distracting and people can also be charged with contempt of court for failing to behave respectfully or resisting orders to leave the court. The bailiff is in charge of enforcing the judge's orders and escorting people out of court if they disrupt the proceedings.

The idea behind holding trials in public is that they will be more fair when members of the public can observe. It is also harder to make deals, offer bribes, and otherwise manipulate the judicial system when trials occur in plain sight in an open court. Courts are also kept open as a matter of public interest; members of a community may want to be able to file a trial as it unfolds, especially if the trial pertains to a controversial or high profile issue. When judges or lawyers believe that court should be closed, they must provide justification for doing so.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By StarJo — On Dec 05, 2011

I wouldn't want to go to open court. I find court rooms and judges very intimidating, and I wouldn't make myself unnecessarily nervous like that.

There are people who get a thrill out of watching legal proceedings, but I am not one of them. My brother is so fascinated by the system that he attends every open court case he can, and this has made him want to be a lawyer.

I understand the draw of the public to view trials, but I can't say I share in it. I don't even like watching trials on TV, because I get so nervous for the people on the stand!

By myharley — On Dec 04, 2011

@anamur - I don't know the absolute answer to your question, but know that in many high profile cases, the media is not allowed in the courtroom.

Sometimes they may be allowed in for certain times, but not all of the time. It seems like this is done on a case by case basis.

I can see how distracting it would be to have the media in the courtroom. On the other hand, we have become so accustomed to seeing inside the private lives of people, that most people expect to be able to see this through the media.

By andee — On Dec 04, 2011

I can certainly see the advantages of most cases being tried in an open court. Since many of them are public trials that are being tried by a jury, it only makes sense that the general public would be able to sit in the courtroom.

My brother is a family law attorney, and he has been involved in some cases that involve children that break your heart and make you mad at the same time.

Some of them have been sensitive enough that the public must leave the courtroom when the children are testifying.

I can imagine how terrifying this must be for them under any kind of circumstances. But to have faces of strangers staring at you would make it even harder.

By serenesurface — On Dec 03, 2011

If a court trial is open to the public, does that also mean that it is open to media?

I completely agree that open court trials are fair and prevent corruption. I think we can also say that countries and governments which allow open court trials are more democratic and transparent.

When I read about trials in other countries in the paper, I often read that there are worries about a case being corrupted and judges being bribed for a favorable outcome. Almost always, these cases are not open to the public.

This is a great example of how open court cases prevent corruption. A country which does not allow any open cases, especially in social matters that is important to the public, cannot be a true democracy in my view.

By honeybees — On Dec 02, 2011

When my son was in high school, he was interested in becoming a lawyer. He had seen many shows on TV where they had open court, and he was able to observe how this worked, but there is nothing like seeing something first hand.

When he had some time during break, we went down to our local courthouse to sit in on some court situations.

I did not know until later that I could have found out ahead of time which cases would be tried for that particular week.

We sat in on some proceedings but they were not that interesting. They were also not very well attended, as the only people there were those who were directly involved with the case.

We went back at a later time to sit in on a case that was a higher profile case, and there were a lot of people in the courtroom.

This was a very good learning experience for him as he sat and watched the whole process in person for the first time.

By sunshine31 — On Dec 01, 2011

Every now and then I will watch the Court TV channel and see some of the televised court proceedings. I know it is not the same thing as being in open court, but I think it is better because you get legal commentary on what some of the rulings mean and the commentators also give their perspective on how the case is coming along which is really interesting.

I remember during the OJ trial this is how I learned about the daily proceedings. The whole process was fascinating.

By Bhutan — On Dec 01, 2011

MissDaphne- I am just curious why someone would bring a baby to open court. I know that you can be excused from jury duty if you care for small children under five because I was exempt a few times for this very reason.

I also think that if the mother was serving as a witness and had to be in court, she could have pumped at home and brought the bottle to court with her and fed the baby that way.

She does not have to breastfeed in a courtroom as that would be a distraction for the case that is being disputed. I agree with the judge because the mother could have prepared for the occasion.

By MissDaphne — On Nov 30, 2011

@rugbygirl - I think even if you testify behind closed doors, the defense still gets to know who said what. It's the right to "face your accuser," guaranteed by the Constitution. Testifying in closed court is more to protect victims of sensitive crimes. So yes, Witness Protection! Of course, that's just a federal program - people who testify in state or local cases might not have the same level of protection that federal witnesses get.

I read about that breastfeeding case, too. She had been waiting a long time and her poor baby was hungry - but yes, the judge gets to decide. Judges feel that you should not bring your baby to court with you, but I don't know what they think nursing moms are supposed to do! I guess it would have been ideal to have a friend or relative with her who could take the baby, but if you have to sit around half the day, you're going to have to feed your baby! Judges need to be compassionate.

By rugbygirl — On Nov 30, 2011

I've heard the phrase "testify in open court" - now I know what it means. I think I might have come across it in mob movies; you might not want to testify against dangerous people and have them know you were doing it. I guess that's where the Witness Protection Program comes in!

There as an instance recently where a mother was asked not to breastfeed her baby in open court. Most places have laws protecting a mother's right to breastfeed, especially on public property like that, but maybe the judge's right to control the courtroom trumps those laws?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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