What does this expression mean?
it’s actually “and may it please the court.” It’s an old-fashioned way of basically saying “i hope you (the court) like what I am about to tell you.”
It’s the standard way to begin oral argument.
It’s a way for a lawyer ask a judge (or judges in an appeal court) whether the lawyer has permission to begin.
I have heard it in both forms (“if it please the court” and “may it please the court”), which are substantively equivalent. From Black’s Law Dictionary:
And from A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage:
As a lawyer approaching a court, you’re a supplicant, so you better, you know, supplicate.
It’s a slightly more formal and professional way of saying: “Yo Judgeykins, listen to me.”
Seems like something from the era of powdered wigs… but then I always thought that was the best part of litigation. Shoulda kept them and ditched the rest.
Does it ever not please the court? And what happens then?
You wait until it does.
Nanoda: malpractice suits and possibly contempt (prison and/or fines).
Of course, when you use the word “please” when politely asking for something, that’s just short for “If it pleases you”.
That sort of impersonal talk is not just old-time speak, it is purposely done in order to keep personalities out of what is supposed to be an impartial procedure.
It’s like Robert’s Rules of Order, where the chair of a meeting would say “the delegate from Timbuktu is recognized and has the floor.” It takes away the breezy informality of, “Go ahead, Suzy, I’m all ears for you, sweetie.”
In court, apart from examination of witnesses, everyone addresses the judge only and they do so politely, taking personalities out of the equation. This keeps the rival attorneys from shouting, “Is not, dumbass!” “Is too, jerkbird!” at each other.
The phrase “may it please the court” shortens what would be the longer exchange:
“Your honor, may I be recognized to address the court?”
Yes, please address the court"
But, by saying, “may it please the court…” and just going ahead, it saves having to go through that exchange every time an attorney wants to say something or make a motion.
May it please the court, I wish to present the motion on behalf of my client that we recess for ten minutes and be called to order outside because it’s such a nice day.
Is this a formal requisite (kinda like phrasing your answer in the form of a question in Jeopardy)? Must this custom be always observed? Is it considered disrespectful not to do so?
Yes, it is considered disrespectful not to do it. Just as it’s disrespectful to touch a judge’s bench, to approach a witness without asking for permission, and to address the judge as anything other than “judge” or “your honor.”
Some will let you get away with it. Some just don’t care one way or the other. Some will be adamant that the customs of respect within a courtroom are maintained. If you don’t know, it’s best to err on the side of respect until the judge informs you of a different procedure in his or her courtroom.
In my experience, it’s not uniformly used. Depends very much on the level of court and the personal customs of each counsel. Some are more comfortable with a formal, slightly archaic beginning; others use a less formal, more modern introduction.
Personally, I like it, especially in appellate work. I think it sets a good opening tone, plus having a standard opening helps to qualm nerves (mine) when I address a panel of appellate judges. (And of course here in Canada, where we gown for appearences in the higher courts, it doesn’t seem that archaic. )
All that’s really needed is a level of politeness and mutual respect; how you do that as counsel is really a matter of personal style.
Does this phrase date back to times when a monarch and his counsel made decisions?
Could be; I don’t know. But, I think you mean “council” (i.e. - a group of advisers), not “counsel” (a barrister).