Most non-lawyers are unfamiliar with how our legal system operates and the often adversarial nature of the process. Testifying in court routinely creates stress, worry and high anxiety for anyone untrained and unfamiliar with its nuances. As with any other new endeavor, gaining some familiarity and experience with the process can help to alleviate most of the fear and anxiety associated with that experience.This post is the first in a new series on Tips for Testifying in Legal Proceedings found in our Counselor Resources Library.. These tips are designed to demystify the legal process and introduce the new or inexperienced witness to the world of law.
Lesson 1: The Basics
Testimony is evidence given by a competent witness under oath. A witness is competent if he or she can communicate effectively on the stand and understands the duty to tell the truth. A witness may be called to give testimony only on evidence about which he or she has personal knowledge. Testimony is typically delivered orally by a witness at trial, or in writing in the form of an affidavit or a deposition.
- Appear and behave professionally. This applies both on the witness stand and off. Obviously your demeanor influences the jurors, but you never know who else is “sizing you up,” on or off the stand.
- Before the trial starts, arrive at the courtroom early and familiarize yourself where the witness chair is located and the path you need to take to get to it. This enables you to walk directly to the stand in a forthright manner and be sworn in.
- Dress professionally. Men and women should dress in a conservative fashion. Dress neatly and avoid flashy jewelry and colors.
- Speak clearly and confidently.
- Once you are seated, sit up straight and look at the questioning attorney. When answering questions, make eye contact with the judge or jurors.
- Do not read, chew gum, eat, drink, smoke, or have conversations in the courtroom.
- Show respect and be courteous. Address the judge as “Your Honor” and the attorneys as “Mr.” or “Ms.”
- Avoid distracting mannerisms such as chewing gum, twirling your hair, or fidgeting with your hands while testifying.
- Present your testimony clearly and slowly. Speak loudly enough so that the judge, court reporter, and juror furthest away can easily hear and understand everything you say.
- Listen very carefully to the question, and make sure you understand it before you answer.
- If either attorney objects, stop talking, let the judge rule on the objection, and then continue.
- Avoid being combative. Let the attorneys get as nasty as they want. They’re more than likely trying to “bait you.” You stay cool and answer the questions.
- If you make a mistake, admit it. Don’t try to cover it up. Nobody is going to hold it against you that you made a mistake, but they will certainly hold it against you if they think you’re lying.
- Speak in your own words. Be yourself and don’t try to memorize your testimony. Know your facts, but don’t try to say things word for word. You will look rehearsed during your testimony and then will not be able to handle cross examination, where the questions are out of sequence.
- If the other side asks a question that you think is objectionable, pause before answering and give your attorney a chance to object. If he doesn’t, answer the question. If either attorney objects, stop your answer and wait for the judge to tell you to proceed.
- Most important of all, tell the truth and never exaggerate. Avoid the temptation to embellish the truth just a bit. It’s not necessary and if you’re caught it makes your whole testimony suspect.
- Do not nod your head to reply to a “yes” or “no” question. Speak so that the court reporter (or recording device) can hear your answer.
- Answer only the question that is asked. Listen carefully to what is asked, and don’t hesitate ask for the question to be repeated or rephrased. You cannot answer a question that you do not understand. Do not volunteer information that is not asked for.
- TELL THE TRUTH. Every true fact should be readily admitted. Do not stop to figure out whether your answer will help or hurt either side. Just answer the question to the best of your recollection.
Join us for the next post in this series on testifying in legal proceedings, where we’ll focus on how to respond to questions on the stand.