How to be a good witness in court

In court it's not the facts that count, but the evidence.

Justice depends less on objective truth and more on which side is able to present the most consistent and coherent version of events. Whilst documents usually speak for themselves, and lawyers can give great speeches, it is very often the live evidence of the witnesses that will determine the outcome of a case.

In the modern adversarial system of court justice, giving evidence and in particular, being cross-examined, is an ordeal at the best of times. What you say will be tested and scrutinised and your credibility will be challenged. With so much often riding on the outcome of a case, it pays to understand what it takes to make a good witness.

Here are 5 tips to help:

1) Answer the Question

It might seem obvious to say, but the key to being a good witness is to actually answer the question. Listen to the question that is asked and answer that question and that question alone. Be precise and concise. Don't over-elaborate, and don't be evasive. Don't answer a question with a question and avoid arguing with the lawyer. Don't volunteer information that you haven't been asked or hide information that you know to be the truthful answer to the question. If you know the answer, give it. If you don't know or don't remember, say so. Being candid carries far more weight than being 100% consistent, because when it comes to deciding who to believe, it is the witness that was trying to be honest, rather than the one that was trying to be the smartest, that judges and juries will tend to prefer.

2) Check your statement

If you have a witness statement, that will stand as your primary evidence. Make it count. Used properly it can be a powerful and persuasive tool, but witnesses often prepare it casually and without making it comprehensive. And if any part of your statement is inaccurate, inconsistent or incomplete, a decent lawyer will pull it apart and use it to undermine your credibility. Check every word, every line and every paragraph of your statement. Make sure every single part of it is 100% accurate. Then stick by it.

3) Stick to the truth. It's the easiest thing to remember

The truth is the easiest thing to remember. So, if you know that the truth is going to make your case weak, tell your lawyer. A clever witness is still no match for an average lawyer, because once you are in the witness box you lose all perspective. You can't tell whether you are doing well or terribly; whether you sound convincing or ridiculous.

The best witnesses are the ones that are candid, telling the truth about what they saw, what they heard, what they said, what they did, what happened etc and leaving it to the judge or jury to decide who's right and who's wrong.

Witnesses that try to lie or outsmart the cross-examining lawyer, get themselves tied in knots and lose all credibility.

We all love Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth" performance in 'A Few Good Men'. But just remember that at the end of the movie, he actually got led off under guard to be court-marshalled; whilst the Tom Cruise lawyer character was left grinning like a Cheshire cat (as Tom likes to do).

So stick to the truth. It's the easiest thing to remember.

4) Dress appropriately because impressions count.

Whatever evidence you are giving, it is usually better to be smart and well turned out, than casual and untidy. A sober suit (for men and women) is nearly always good. It shows respect to the court, and people (judges and juries are people!) still associate smartness and cleanliness with credibility. Little things can matter, a tie that's skewiff, a blouse that's too low cut, a shirt handing out. If you get two equally credible witnesses that the court has to decide between, chances are they'll believe the one that looked the part.

5) Grit your teeth and get through it.

Giving evidence is an ordeal whether it goes brilliantly or terribly. Particularly when it comes to being cross-examined, remember that lawyers are trained to find and magnify even the tiniest inconsistency. That's their job.

You will make mistakes, get confused, even forget things you knew for certain just moments before you got into the witness box. Accept it. You are human, which means you are not perfect. The good news is you don't have to be. Judges and juries are actually very forgiving of mistakes, and adept at spotting the difference between an error and a lie. So don't worry if and when it happens. Whether you're in the witness box for 10 minutes or 10 hours, all you can do is to take each question as it comes.

As a witness you are a character in a real life human drama, so grit your teeth and get through it. And the end of it all, you'll at least have a good story for the grandkids!

Good luck!

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