Giving evidence in court
It’s a daunting prospect to stand up in a room full of strangers and answer questions, especially if you know some of those strangers will want to prove you wrong. That’s why it’s only natural to feel nervous if you are asked to appear in court as a witness. Even people whose jobs often require them to give evidence suffer from pre-court nerves. So here are some tips to help you through the experience.
Find out as much as you can beforehand
In particular, make sure you know where the court is. Ten minutes before you are due to attend is not the best moment to discover that the building you thought was the County Court only houses the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages.
If you visit the court t in advance, you may be able to see another case in process. This will show you how the room is arranged and the procedures that are followed while the court is in session. However, it's not always possible as some cases are not open to the public.
Courts are formal places so judges and magistrates prefer people attending them to dress appropriately. Avoid wearing very casual clothes as that could be interpreted as lack of respect. The type of clothes you would wear to a job interview are a good choice.
Courts are usually quite warm, and your nervousness may make you feel even warmer so choose clothes that are cool and comfortable. If you are worried about feeling cold, add a jacket or other top that can be easily removed rather than a roll neck sweater with nothing underneath. But if you're a man wearing a suit, check before you take off your jacket. I once saw a judge get very angry because someone did this in his courtroom. If your judge has similar opinions, you may just have to swelter.
Choose comfortable shoes
Although you want to look smart, you won’t cope well if your feet hurt. So this is not a good occasion to wear a brand-new pair of shoes, especially if you’ll be giving your evidence standing up.
Refresh your memory
It usually takes a long time for a case to come to court. That means months may have passed since the accident or other incident you witnessed so the so the facts you will be asked about are no longer be fresh in your mind. Your memory can let you down after such a delay, so refresh it before you go to court by reading through any statements or notes you made at the time. If you have no copy of the statement you made to the police, ask them if you can look at one.
Be prepared to wait
Although you’ll have been told when to arrive at court, don’t assume that is the time you will be giving evidence. The wheels of justice turn very slowly so go prepared for long wait. Take a book, a newspaper or crossword to help you pass the time and pain killers a if you suffer from headaches when under stress.. Sweets to suck will help if your mouth goes dry when you are nervous, but don’t eat them in court.
Once the case with which you are involved begins, you will usually be asked to stay outside the court until it is your turn to give evidence. This is to prevent your testimony being affected by hearing the other witnesses.
When you finally reach the witness box, the clerk will ask you to take the oath. Then the lawyer for the side that has called you to give evidence will begin by asking you to state your full name and address. The oath and your identification gives you a chance to practise speaking to the court before it matters too much what you say. Hopefully, once these preliminaries over will probably feel less nervous and may even stop holding the front of the witness box for support.
The same lawyer will now ask you to give your evidence. Although he or she is asking the questions, you should give your replies to the magistrate or judge and to the jury if there is one. Try to speak loudly and clearly but not unusually slowly. It’s important that everyone can hear you, but speaking too slowly can sound as if you are not sure of your answer.
Once you have given your evidence, the lawyer for the other side will cross-examine you. If you are anything like me, it will be this part of the proceedings that you have dreaded most, but don’t worry too much. It's unlikely to resemble the cut and thrust of court scenes in TV dramas. Those lawyers are only actors speaking lines from a script. Real lawyers have to pause occasionally to plan their next questions in view of your answers to the previous ones.
Stick to the truth
That sounds obvious, but it can be tempting to exaggerate a little, add extra details or say you’re certain when you’re not, especially if the result of the case matters to you personally. However, it’s important not to say anything that isn’t 100% true. If you do and the opposition lawyer catches you out, all your evidence will be called into doubt – not just that little bit. It’s much better to say I don’t know or I can’t remember than to make things up. Similarly, don't feel you have to give long, flowery replies. A simple yes or no is often enough. If anyone wants to know more than that, they can ask you another question.
Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t understand something.
Lawyers sometimes ask long, involved questions (especially on cross-examination) and use complicated legal phrases. If you don’t understand a question, ask the person concerned to repeat it or rephrase it.
After your testimony is finished
When you have given your evidence, you will usually be expected to remain in or near the court until the hearing is finished, just in case they need you to give further evidence. If this is inconvenient, the court may give you permission to leave. Ask the lawyer who called you to request this or have a word with one of the court officials.
Once you do get outside, you can enjoy the resulting wave of relief and know that you’ve survived an experience you’ll never forget. But don’t be surprised if the resulting drop in tension causes some interesting effects. The first time I gave evidence, my teeth started chattering as soon as I left of the court room and didn’t stop for several minutes.