We understand that being a witness in court can be a daunting experience. When you are involved in a legal claim, it's only natural to feel some apprehension - especially in the unfamiliar atmosphere of a court room.
Your lawyer cannot "coach" you by telling you what to say in the witness box. What they can do is support you through the process and help you to give your best evidence.
- If in doubt, ask. Everybody involved in the case knows that you are very unlikely to attend court regularly. It may be your first time in a court. If there is something about the process that you do not understand don't let it put you off your stride: ask your lawyer. This might include questions about how to address the judge, or where to stand. The more informed you are about what is likely to happen, the more relaxed you will feel when giving your evidence.
- Prepare. Consider asking your lawyers to arrange a familiarisation visit to the court in which you will be giving evidence. You will be able to see the inside of court rooms and gain an understanding of how the day will go, which will help put your mind at ease.
- Be honest. We can't stress this enough. Not only is giving false evidence an offence, a lie or half-truth can taint the value of everything else you've said. If a judge doesn't find you credible, it only helps the other side to make their case.
- Stick to what you know. If you are being asked what you saw or did, stick to that. Don't worry about what other people might have seen or done and don't speculate. If you are an expert witness, keep to your own area of expertise. There is no need to guess or step outside of your expertise.
- Be direct. Give your answers in a clear and direct way. This won't be considered rude, and the judge will be able to see that you are being straightforward in your evidence. Avoid flowery or overly technical language.
- Don't fill the silence. Once you have answered the question that was asked, stop. Do not worry if it feels awkward or abrupt. You are giving evidence, not having a conversation. Filling silence risks spoiling a clear answer by adding some element of doubt or contradiction to what you've just said.
- Take your time. This is your chance to give your evidence. Consider what you will say before your answer, if you feel that will help you. You should be asked one question at a time, but if you feel there are a number of parts to your answer, take your time and go through them carefully in turn and don't be afraid to ask for a question to be repeated. If you still don't understand it, you must say so.
- Speak clearly. The judge needs to know what your evidence is. The content of what you say must be understandable, and so must the way you say it. Speak loudly and slowly enough to be heard. The judge is likely to be noting what you are saying so they need time to do that.
- Don't get angry. When you are cross-examined by the lawyer for the other side, they are likely to suggest your evidence is wrong. Their job is to put to you that their client's position should be preferred to your evidence. They might even ask you if your evidence has been made up. Try to remember that this is a normal part of the process. Simply keep calm and explain that you have given your evidence truthfully.
- Speak to the judge. Remember - the judge is going to be deciding the case based partly on the quality of your evidence. Try to face the judge as often as you can, so that you can be clearly heard and be seen. You might find the process of being cross-examined frustrating, which runs the risk that your evidence becomes argumentative. This risk can be lessened if you turn your attention away from your cross-examiner and towards the judge when answering the questions you have been asked. The judge will be making notes of what you say. When you face the bench, you can also get a better idea of whether you are going too quickly.
At Brodies, our experienced court lawyers put great care into helping witnesses feel at ease so they can give their best evidence in court. This blog is designed to accompany our Brodies' Seminar series on the same subject. Our in-house team of solicitor advocates know all the ins and outs of court procedure, and have prepared these seminars from their collective experience in taking evidence from witnesses. To register for our Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen seminars, please click here.