Tell the truth. This is so important that I listed it first, and repeated it. No matter how much you think the truth will hurt your case, I can guarantee you that lying to the Court can hurt you more. Once you lose your credibility with a Judge, you will never be believed again, on anything, even when you do tell the truth. So, always tell the truth. Don't guess. "I don't remember" is a perfectly acceptable answer if it's the truth. It's also acceptable to be vague. If you don't remember the exact words someone said, it's okay to say, "He said something about walking the dog, but I don't remember his exact words." The important thing is to be truthful.
Listen Carefully to the Entire Question
Don't start to answer before you have heard the entire question. This is sometimes hard for people to remember when under the pressure of being on the witness stand. However, you cannot properly answer a question unless you hear the entire question and understand it. Don't anticipate what is coming and interrupt your attorney with an answer before you know exactly what is being asked. For one thing, it's rude and will annoy the Judge. More importantly, a record is being made of your testimony, and you want the record to be clear and not include anything that could cause confusion later.
Don't Answer a Question Unless You Fully Understand It
If opposing counsel asks you a question you don't understand, you should tell the Judge that you don't understand the question. Opposing counsel will then re-word it. However, don't get cute and say you don't understand a question that anyone would understand. If opposing counsel asks you what you had for breakfast yesterday, there's not much about that question that could possibly be confusing to anyone, so just answer the question. But if you are really confused or unsure what is being asked, make sure you understand the question completely before you answer. Attorneys aren't always articulate, unfortunately. Sometimes they ask long confusing questions that even they don't understand. Don't answer a question like that. Respond that you didn't understand the question.
Give Your Attorney a Chance to Make an Objection
Pause before you answer each question. You should do so anyway, to give yourself a chance to think about the question and your answer. However, assuming you understood the question and the answer is easy and right on the tip of your tongue, count to five before answering, to give your attorney a few seconds to make an objection, if he or she chooses to object. Once you've answered the question, it's too late for your attorney to object, so help your attorney do a good job for you. Give your attorney enough time to think of an objection and make it before you respond.
Don't Volunteer Information
Answer the question asked and add nothing more to your answer. This is difficult, because you will naturally want to explain your answer. Don't explain. It's almost certain to come back to haunt you. For one thing, the attorney will then have more information and can ask you more questions about what you just volunteered. For example, if the attorney asks you what time your child gets home from school, answer "usually about 4:00 p.m." if that's the time. (notice I said "usually around 4:00," because no one gets home at the same exact time every day) Do not add: "then she goes over to her Dad's house for a while." The attorney didn't ask you what she did when she got home, just what time she got home. However, it's not likely opposing counsel will ask you a question like that. More likely, you will get questions you can answer yes or no, such as "Your daughter usually gets home around 4:00. Correct?" You should answer "yes" if it's true, and "no" if it isn't.
If you don't remember, say that you don't remember. Opposing counsel is entitled to your best recollection, but isn't entitled to speculation by you. Do not speculate or guess. Sometimes the only truthful answer is "I don't know" or "I don't remember."
Don't Express Anger and Don't Argue With Opposing Counsel
Some attorney like to provoke anger in a witness, especially in certain family law matters like custody or restraining order hearings. Don't take the bait. Even if you feel angry, don't give the attorney the satisfaction of seeing it. Count to 10 in your head if you have to. Never let them see you sweat, and never let the Judge see you angry. Some attorneys like to argue with you. If that happens, your attorney should make an objection, but even if there's no objection, don't argue.
You may be the life of the party. You may use humor as a defense when you're nervous. However, when you're in Court, you must be serious. No joking, and absolutely NO SARCASM. The transcript doesn't have inflections, so a sarcastic response sounds exactly the same as a serious response on the record. You don't have to be dour, but when you're on the witness stand, take everything very seriously, and answer accordingly.
No Profanity or Derogatory Language
You're in a court of law. You need to remain respectful and polite. Don't say anything that would possibly be offensive to anyone. The only exception is when you are asked what someone said and the truthful answer contains profanity or derogatory language. But make sure it's clear that you are quoting someone else. "He said..." If it's really vulgar, and you don't like to say language like that, say "He said something really vulgar. Do you want me to repeat it?" The Judge will then decide if the exact words said are important enough to repeat, and will have a chance to remove any children from the Courtroom, if necessary.
Read Any Documents Before you Testify About Them
If opposing counsel asks you about something in a document, make sure you read the document before responding. If you are being asked questions about a document that has already been entered into evidence or made an exhibit, ask to see the document if it hasn't already been handed to you. If you're asked a question and you don't remember the answer, but there is a document that isn't an exhibit that would allow you to answer the question, DON'T mention the document. The correct answer is "I don't remember," NOT "I don't remember, but if I had a copy of my promissory note I could tell you." It's not your job to make opposing counsel's job easier or make sure opposing counsel understands everything. If it's important to your case, your own attorney will make sure the document gets into evidence.
Additional resources provided by the author
Be sure to read my other Guide for Witnesses on Direct Examination. The link is below.
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