You Have Been Called To Court To Testify
Information provided by the NCATL Education Foundation
No doubt you have many mixed feelings about this. You may be annoyed with an interference in your work. You may be nervous about what will happen and what is expected of you. You may be confused as to why they can’t just use your statement. You may not really want to go. Maybe you are unsure that what you know may be of help. Hopefully, you will be proud to be taking an important role in our American system of justice.
Your busy schedule and court.
Everyone involved can appreciate the demands on your valuable time. The judge and the lawyers are always going to try to save as much of your time as possible. If things seem to go slowly or there are delays, please be patient. Our system of justice is a very sure one, but sometimes delays just can’t be avoided.
If you have specific scheduling conflicts, bring them to the attention of the attorney who called you as a witness. It may be that he can schedule the time in the trial that he calls you, to avoid a conflict. Also, he may want you to be available “on call” rather than waiting in court. If neither of these are possible, please understand that the attorney will do the best he can to avoid as much inconvenience as possible.
Are you nervous about going to court?
If you have never been to court you might be nervous. That’s very understandable. The attorney who called you as a witness might be nervous if he had to step into your professional arena also.
Don’t hesitate to call a lawyer who is having you come to court. He will be happy to answer any questions for you. He knows that the less nervous you are the better witness you will be.
Why can’t they just use your statement?
Very often witnesses wonder why the lawyers and judge can’t use the statement that they may have already given. Under our system of justice the judge cannot allow a prior statement into evidence. Our law requires that the witness give his statement under oath in open court, so that all the parties can ask any questions they may have. Also, your demeanor while testifying, the way you act and speak, can have an influence on the case. Therefore you actual presence in court will be necessary.
What if you just don’t come to court?
A subpoena is an order from the court that you be present. It must be obeyed or the judge could find you in contempt and punish you for not appearing.
If you call the attorney who requested the subpoena or he calls you, he may give you more specific instructions of when and where to be for trial. If his instructions are different than what is on the subpoena, don’t worry. The judge will not find you in contempt. Be sure that you understand and write down the new instructions given to you by the attorney who requested you as a witness.
Do you really know anything important to the case?
Sometimes people who are called as witnesses are uncertain of what information they have that may be helpful. What you do know may be more important than you think. If you still have doubts, get in touch with the attorney who requested your subpoena. If you are contacted by an attorney involved in the suit or his investigator for an interview prior to trial, cooperate fully.
Are you just a little proud to be taking part in our system of justice?
You should be. As a witness, you are very important. Our entire system of justice depends on citizens providing information in court truthfully, to the best of their recollection. Only then can a judge or jury make a fair and well informed decision. As a witness you’re important to the parties involved and our judicial system.
Some Helpful Hints
- Do go over the facts of the case in your mind prior to your appearance in court. For example, if it is an accident case, visit the scene of the accident. It may refresh your memory.
- Do be neat in your personal appearance. You are being judged not only by what you say, but also by how you present yourself.
- Do get comfortable, sit erect and look around you to familiarize yourself with the court surroundings when you take the witness stand.
- Do tell the truth. Don’t answer questions with half-truths. Don’t try to judge whether an answer is going to help or hurt one side or the other. As a witness, your sole duty is to tell it like you saw it — nothing more, nothing less.
- Do answer the questions clearly and loudly enough so everyone can hear you. Don’t talk too fast or too slowly. Don’t mumble or slur your words. Look at the jury and addess your remarks to them, so that the jury members will be able to hear and understand what you have to say. If a judge is deciding the case and not a jury, address your remarks to him or her.
- Do be polite. Use “ma’am,” “sir” and “your honor.”
- Do be serious at all times. The courtroom is not the place to be cute or humorous.
- Do listen to the questions carefully. If you do not hear a question, ask that it be repeated. If you do not understand a question, ask that it be rephrased. Don’t attempt to guess at an answer to a question that you didn’t understand or hear. If you do not know the answer to the question, state simply that you do not know. No one expects you to remember every little detail.
- Do answer directly and simply only the question asked of you, and then stop.
- Do correct it immediately, if you make a mistake in answering a question.
- Do explain the answer, if a question can’t be truthfully answered with a “yes” or “no”
- Do stop your testimony immediately if an objection is made by one of the attorneys or the judge speaks.
- Do be sure that you say it is only an estimate if the question is about distances, time or speed and your answer is only an estimate.
- Do be sure and answer “yes” if you have talked to anyone about your testimony before. There is nothing wrong with discussing the facts with the attorneys, parties, police or investigators prior to the trial.
- Do be natural. Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you are not. If you relax and tell the truth and remember you are just talking to some neighbor on the jury, you will get along fine.
- Do not memorize your testimony. It will sound rehearsed and lack the ring of truth.
- Do not volunteer information.
- Do not argue with the attorney asking questions.
- Do not look to the attorney who called you for help in answering the question while testifying on cross-examination. If the question is improper, the attorney will object and the judge will rule on it.