Except for expert witnesses and law enforcement officers who testify on a regular basis, most people are nervous about being a witness in a lawsuit. If you are called to be a witness, whether in a divorce, contract dispute, or any other type of case, there are certain things that you can expect to happen when you testify in court.
Court hearings are formal processes, so arrive early (beware of Northern Virginia traffic!) and dress professionally. When the proceedings start, the clerk may ask you to take an oath to tell the truth and the judge may then ask you to wait outside of the courtroom until you are called to the stand.
When it is your turn to testify, the attorney who called you as a witness will ask you questions first. Then, the other side’s attorney may ask you questions. It is not unheard of for the judge to ask questions as well. Your presence is important to tell a story that has an impact on the case at hand. Therefore, your credibility is key. You want the judge or jury to take you seriously and believe what you have to say. That means you must be clear and confident. Here are some tips to help you accomplish those objectives:
1. Take your time. Court proceedings take time and have serious consequences. Do not feel rushed by the person asking you questions. Feel free to take a breath between the question and the beginning of your answer. It is always better to think through what you want to say than to rush ahead. This is especially true if you are shown a document. Take the time to read it so that you are not caught off guard.
2. You are in control. Just because you are the one answering the questions, you are not powerless. If an attorney or the judge mischaracterizes what you said, politely correct them. If you do not understand a question, ask the questioner to rephrase it. If you do not understand a word, ask for an explanation. Sometimes attorneys slip into using legal jargon out of habit. Not understanding a legal term does not say anything about your intelligence. Likewise, if you cannot hear the question, ask the questioner to speak up. You can only be asked to answer questions you hear and understand.
3. Tell the truth. The court only asks you to tell the truth. You may have answers you know the attorney will not like, but if it is the truth, it is your responsibility to tell it. Tell your story the way you remember it. That also means that if you do not know or remember something, then the truth is ‘I do not know’ or ‘I do not remember.’ Never guess.
4. The proceedings should be respectful. Again, court proceedings are formal. Just as the attorneys should not use sarcasm, inappropriate gestures, and condescending tones, neither should the witness. Unfortunately, sometimes people fall below the standards of decorum. Do not dignify their poor behavior with responses in kind. Also, do not speak over other people. If there is an objection, it is important for you to stop speaking and hear what the judge has to say.
5. Answer only the question asked. Don’t elaborate, and certainly don’t go off on tangents. This sounds simple, but we at PJI Law see this issue come up very often on all sides of cases. You may be inclined to elaborate or tell the story that you want to tell, however, it is best to keep your responses short and direct. If the questioner wants you to elaborate, they will ask you to do so. Remember, it is not your job to be the trial strategist and guess where the questioner wants you to go. Your only responsibility is to answer the questions asked. Otherwise, you may be doing the proceeding a disservice and you may lose credibility in the eyes of the court.
Being a witness in a court proceeding can be very stressful, but it is important to keep yourself collected and follow these simple guidelines.