Testifying in Court

Proper Courtroom Behaviour in Criminal Court Proceedings
Testifying in Court can be a very stressful experience for any individual, this is especially so for people accused of crimes. No matter how confident you may be in your innocence, or how insignificant you may consider your evidence, the proceedings are intimidating. The Court is set up in a way that the witness is in the most prominent position, before many people, and being carefully scrutinized on every word they say. To anyone anxious of public speaking, testifying in Court is one of the worst experiences imaginable.

Fortunately, with proper preparation and understanding of the procedures, expectations, and limitations of the examiner, your experience as a witness need not be dreaded. To assist witnesses who will testify before a Court, I have compiled a helpful summary of the things one ought to know before testifying.

None of the advice set out below can properly substitute for having dedicated legal counsel to advise you on the specific facts relating to your testimony; nor should this summary in any way substitute for retaining legal counsel in any legal matter. Representing yourself without specific legal advice is invariably detrimental to your interests and the importance of obtaining proper legal counsel cannot be emphasized enough. This article is for informational purposes only; the author assumes no liability for any reliance an individual may have on this or other articles written and any capacity.

Things to remember when testifying in Court:

  1. Your appearance is almost as important as what you have to say. Wear clean clothes in court and dress conservatively. Do not over-dress or under dress: speak to you lawyer for more clarification but you should dress as you would for a holiday dinner, church, or a casual job interview.
  2. You should stand up straight when taking the oath and say, “I Do” clearly. Remember to sit up straight in the witness chair and be careful not to slouch or lean on the stand.
  3. Speak frankly, openly, and naturally, as you would to any friend or neighbor in a more formal setting.
  4. Testify in a confident, straightforward manner.
  5. Speak loud enough to be heard and slow enough to be understood.
  6. Listen carefully to the question asked, think about and answer the question, and answer it directly and succinctly.
  7. Listen carefully to the questions asked of you. Just answer the question asked and do not volunteer anything. You are entitled to explain your answer if necessary. You do not always have to answer yes or no if an explanation is necessary.
  8. You may ask that the question be repeated if you didn’t hear it, or if you need the question to be clarified.
  9. Respond directly to the question asked without argument.
  10. Answer “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” if you don’t know or can’t remember.
  11. Correct your answer immediately if it was wrong. If you realize you are mistaken later on, ask to return to the question that brought upon the mistake.
  12. Be polite to all lawyers, including the lawyer on the opposing side, and to the Judge.
  13. Be candid. It’s much better to admit you were angry, mad or jealous (as normal people become) than to portray yourself as a saint or devoid of emotion in situations when one would expect such a response. Failing to admit the obvious is often more damaging than admitting the emotion you were feeling.
  14. Never look at your lawyer or the judge for help answering a question.
  15. Do not memorize what you’re going to say: it will come across and forced and contrived notwithstanding it may be the complete truth
  16. When you are speaking, be sure that everyone can hear you. Do not put your hand over your mouth, speak loud enough so that everyone in the Court can hear you, and do not have anything in your mouth such as gum or candy.
  17. Courts can be boring and tiny distractions are amplified in their annoyance. Therefore, do not do anything that draws attention to yourself or is distracting such as playing with paper, a pen, or tapping on a desk.
  18. Do not answer questions not asked of you or continue speaking after giving your answer. Long winded answers can appear evasive, particularly if they do not answer the question.
  19. Try to avoid language that might be easily misinterpreted.
  20. Be respectful, but do not let the opposing counsel take control of the situation. If they are speeding you up, you are entitled to slow down; if they are suggesting answers, you do not have to agree; if they are cutting you off, you are permitted to answer as you see fit.
  21. Do not ask the judge if you have to answer a question you find distasteful. Your lawyer will object if a question is improper. If they don’t object, you can assume it’s a proper question and you have to answer.
  22. Do not guess at an answer, or provide an answer based on what someone else told you. Stick to the facts, not hearsay, conclusions or opinions. You usually cannot testify about what someone else told you or you have heard.
  23. Don’t be afraid to admit honest mistakes.
  24. Never answer questions in a hostile or argumentative manner; often counsel is trying to instigate you to do so and therefore when you lose your cool, they have achieved their objective.
  25. Do not try to explain away, distance, or justify a criminal record. If you were convicted of an offense, just admit it. Do not say anything like “But I just plead guilty to get it over with” or “I plead guilty because my lawyer told me to.” People who say such things can come across as someone who is willing to lie or deceive the Court to get out of a difficult situation.
  26. Be serious at all times. Avoid laughing and talking about the case in the halls, restrooms, or any place in the courthouse and be aware that the jurors may see you entering the courthouse.
  27. Don’t be afraid to address the jury when you are answering your questions.
  28. If your answer was wrong, correct it immediately and if your answer was not clear, clarify it immediately.
  29. If you don’t understand the question, say so and ask that it be repeated.
  30. If the prosecutor asks you if you have talked to anyone about this case – that may be a trick question – tell them the truth. If you have spoken to you lawyer or police, or even other people
  31. If I object to a question, do not answer until the judge rules on the objection. If a judge sustains an objection, this means that you do not have to answer the question. If the judge overrules an objection, this means that the question must be answered. If you have forgotten the question by that time, you can ask it be repeated.
  32. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t let that get you nervous. Simply say, “I don’t know.”
  33. Don’t use the phrase “honestly…” or “to be honest” in answering your questions.
    For example:
    Q: Sir, I am going to suggest you were there the evening that night of the murder.
    A: To be honest sir, I wasn’t.
    Simply state the answer. For example, “No, that’s false. I wasn’t there.”
  34. When you leave the witness stand after testifying, look confident, and not downcast or defeated.
  35. Be confident in your testimony and evidence. Juries look to subtle cues and are interpret weakness or insecurity as signs of guilt. Confidence, not arrogance, is essential to proper courtroom behavior.
  36. Rules are only guidelines. As helpful as all these tips may be, a trial is a dynamic and unpredictable event that often requires one to vary from these rules. Only experienced legal counsel can advise you on the specifics of your case and ensure that your rights and interests are protected.