4 Simple Rules to Avoid Disaster When Giving Evidence in Court

Giving evidence is a daunting prospect

Giving evidence in court can be daunting but these 4 simple rules will help you avoid disaster.  You are likely to be cross examined by a lawyer who has been hired to find weaknesses in your evidence, undermine your self confidence and make it look as though what you are saying is wrong, unclear, mistaken or even dishonest.  They may attack your reputation and even suggest that you are a disreputable person and not to be believed.  Get it wrong and it can feel like an embarrassing disaster.  You need to be prepared to deal with it.  Here are 4 simple rules to follow to help you to be a good witness. 

Witnesses can be treated badly

In a previous blog I urged caution before taking your case to court because of the many risks you will face.  One of those risks is the appalling way in which witnesses can be treated.  Although one of the responsibilities of the judge or magistrates is to protect witnesses from unreasonable attack, the leeway allowed to lawyers when cross examining you can sometimes be shockingly wide and witnesses can be treated in ways that many feel is intimidating and unreasonable.  This harsh treatment is justified by the need to allow defendants to defend themselves.

Practise these 4 rules before the day

Be prepared for cross examination and learn to follow these 4 rules before you have to give evidence for real:

1.  Dress and act the part.

Court is a theatre and your audience will judge your performance with whatever prejudices they carry (for example, I’ve heard some lawyers joke that white socks with a dark suit are a sure sign of guilt), so dress and behave in a manner that will convince them of your trustworthiness. The court has the power of the state behind it and it’s going to make important decisions that you will have to obey, so it is wise to show respect. 

The professional people in court all have to wear a uniform.  For the judge and barristers that can mean a gown and wig.  For the other lawyers and officials it means dark coloured and sober clothes.  You probably shouldn’t look as if you are pretending to be a lawyer (don’t wear a gown and wig!) but dark coloured and sober clothes (no white socks!) are the most sensible way to dress.  

2.  Look at the decision maker(s)

When you answer questions, look at the decision maker(s) – the magistrates, judge or jury – and not at the lawyer questioning you.  You can choose to either not look at the lawyer at all, or look at them only when they are actually speaking to you.  When you answer, though, always look away to talk to the people who are going to make the decisions.  They are the ones you need to connect with.

Of course, it is normally polite to look at the person who is speaking to you, but if you find it uncomfortable or unsettling while giving evidence, there is no rule that says you have to look at them.  Many barristers are very skilled at asking questions in a way that is unsettling or annoying and it can be tempting to focus on them. 

Remember that you are not there to persuade the lawyer to change their mind. The lawyer has been hired by your opposition to make the strongest case possible against you and you are never going to change their mind however convincing your answers are. The people you have to persuade are the decision makers – the magistrates, the jury or the judge.  

Equally important though, you need to avoid being provoked into anger, impatience or agitation.  Your evidence needs to be delivered calmly and politely without being provoked into saying something you shouldn’t.  So, when speaking, turn to the decision-makers, look them in the eye and talk to them.  You will find it much more comfortable than talking to the opposition’s lawyer.

3.  Listen to the questions and answer them

The people that have to make the decisions in your case, however important it is to you, are only there to do a job.  They are obliged to sit and listen to your evidence even if they would rather be doing something else.  So don’t make their job harder for them.  Listen carefully to the questions and answer them as well as you can without being evasive. 

The lawyer is entitled to ask you questions and you have to answer truthfully, but you don’t have to let yourself be lured into saying something you do not agree with.  If you feel that you are being asked a trick question, then turn to the decision makers and tell them so.  If you do that politely but firmly, you may then be allowed to explain the problem you are having with the question you have been asked.


4.  Pause to think before answering. 

There’s no need to be rushed when answering questions during cross examination.  Lawyers will often try to undermine your evidence by getting you agitated or angry so that you blurt out an unconsidered answer. If the lawyer starts to rap out questions in a tone that seems to demand a snappy response, do not let yourself be drawn into matching their tone by giving quick, sharp responses.  

On the other hand, don’t have a long pause before every answer.  If you are unreasonably slow, the court will become impatient with you and you will lose the decision makers’ sympathy. Just pause long enough to stay calm and to give yourself time to think.  And if your answer to a question is going to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’, just say it.  Don’t feel that you have to wrap your response up in a long sentence. Be straightforward when you can be. 

So, in summary, these are the 4 simple rules to avoid disaster when giving evidence in court:  Dress in a way that respects the court; listen to the questions; look away from the opposition lawyer and talk to the decision maker(s) when you respond; pause to think before answering; stay calm and polite and give clear and truthful answers.  You will then do yourself justice whatever the court decides.


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