Top tips for factual witnesses when giving evidence
Giving evidence before any legal hearing, is something that you are unlikely to do often in your life. Many witnesses have never seen the inside of a courtroom, tribunal, or other legal hearing room. For this reason, giving evidence is unfamiliar and can often be an uncomfortable, unsettling and daunting experience.
Bond Solon specialises in providing support for all types of witnesses including witnesses of fact, professional witnesses and expert witnesses, giving evidence in a wide variety of legal hearings including: High Court, County Court, Magistrates Court, Crown Court, Arbitration, Employment Tribunal, other Tribunals, Coroners Court, Fatal Accident Inquiry, Public Inquiry, Planning Inquiry, Professional Conduct Hearing. Each of these different legal hearings has its own specific rules and procedures.
Bond Solon provide this witness training through our Witness Familiarisation Service.
Bond Solon’s Witness Familiarisation service is used by the UK’s leading law firms on behalf of their clients, companies and also the witnesses themselves.
Below we provide some useful hints and tips for all factual witnesses which will assist them when giving evidence in any legal hearing.
Top Tips for factual witnesses when Giving Evidence
This is not about training you to give evidence in a particular way. It is about you being natural and comfortable when you give your evidence so that you can tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to the decision maker (for example the Judge, Arbitrator, Tribunal Panel etc.).
The following are not rules, but points to consider.
- Preparation before giving evidence
Witness Statements form the basis for the questions that you will be asked when giving evidence. You should be familiar with your evidence and should read your statement, and any related documents, before going into the witness box. Read and re-read it several times. You should also obtain an understanding of the “challenges” (to your evidence), you are going to face in cross examination.
- Directing answers to the decision maker
When giving evidence face the decision maker. Non-verbal techniques (basically the lawyer’s body language) that might be used by the cross-examining lawyer will be less effective because you are not looking at the lawyer all the time. Turn to face the questioning lawyer. Listen carefully to the question the lawyer is asking. When the lawyer has completed the question, turn back to face the decision maker. You can then consider the question and your answer to it. Direct the answer to the decision maker. Observe their reaction, to gauge whether the answer is clearly understood. When you have finished your answer turn back to the lawyer, slowly. This is a signal of readiness and allows you to control the speed of questioning.
- Seeking assistance of the decision maker
If you do not understand the question, you are being asked, you are entitled to get clarification from the lawyer before answering. If you do not feel comfortable addressing your request to the lawyer, it is permissible to ask the decision maker. The decision maker can then refer any questions to the lawyers. This way you are minimising contact with the lawyers and reducing the risk of getting into an argument with them.
- Communicating effectively
A legal hearing is not a natural environment. It is important, when giving evidence, to take time and speak clearly and slowly. In particular, avoid using jargon and technical terms, or if you do, explain what the jargon or technical term means. When answering to the decision maker, you may see them making notes. This is a useful reminder to you to slow down to give them time to write a good note of what you are saying. There is often no microphone in the hearing in order to amplify your voice, so you need to pitch your voice appropriately.
Although the bundle of documents has been prepared to assist the judge or panel with understanding the case in advance, you should not assume when you are giving evidence that the decision maker has read or understood anything. You therefore need to take every opportunity in answering, to elaborate and expand providing the necessary context, in order that your answer is properly understood by the decision maker.
- Cross examining techniques
The cross examiner will use a variety of techniques (for example, asking repeat questions, using a tone of voice to put pressure on you) to try to achieve one of the following objectives:
- Attack or undermine your evidence (for example to make you seem inconsistent, mistaken etc.)
- Attack or undermine your character (for example to make you appear incompetent, difficult to deal with etc.)
- Put forward their client’s alternative explanation (the “challenge”) of what happened (‘I put it to you…’)
Witnesses often find the opposing party’s lawyer or representative may seek to provoke them when they are giving evidence. You need to remain calm and not argue with the lawyer regardless of their tone or possible rudeness.
You are under a legal obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This means, quite simply, when giving evidence that you give an honest answer, whether it helps your “side” or not.
- Don’t go outside the facts or area of expertise when giving evidence
When giving evidence, if you are asked about facts that you do not know, then you should say that you do not know. This is a perfectly proper answer if it is an honest one. Your answers should be limited to those matters of which you have personal knowledge, and you should not speculate or give opinion (if you are a witness of fact).
- And finally… make sure your Mobile Phone is switched off!
If you bring a mobile phone to the hearing, you must be sure to turn it off or swich it to silent mode (and not on vibrate mode, as this can be easily heard). Decision makers will get very irritated if these handsets go off during proceedings.
The role of a witness is to help the decision maker come to a decision by answering questions. To be helpful the witness needs to give complete answers, not incomplete answers which could be misleading. Nor should a witness avoid answering questions – particularly difficult ones. To do so risks the witness appearing evasive.
Some top tips on “Virtual” Hearings
There should be a technical test prior to the hearing, to ensure that you can successfully connect with the video platform on which the hearing is being held. Obviously, you need to have a reliable Wi-Fi signal, although it will always be understood that no matter how reliable it is, there will be those occasions when it will suddenly “drop out”. Do not panic if it does!
You need to ensure that you are alone when giving evidence. Decision-makers have been known to ask witnesses to use their camera to demonstrate that they are in the room on their own.
Make sure you can be seen clearly, do not sit in front of a window otherwise you will appear as a silhouette. Make sure you can be heard clearly and that there are no distracting exterior noises!
If it is practicable, arrange to give evidence from the solicitor’s office, in that way you do not need to make these arrangements or worry about whether your Wi-Fi signal is going to let you down!
There will be a “digital” (document) bundle. Ascertain the process by which the documents, which are being used during the hearing, are going to be shown to you.
If possible, ask to be allowed to have a paper copy of your own witness statement and exhibits (if the exhibits are not too voluminous), so that you have easy access to it, if you need to check anything before answering.
We will discuss any other issues arising from giving evidence virtually during the training session, which is itself an opportunity to test how well it will work.
If you will be giving evidence in a forthcoming hearing and would like to discuss how Bond Solon can assist you, please call us on 0207 549 2549 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.