How to testify at a hearing!

how to testify at a hearing
May 20, 2020 mollerpienaar 0 Comments

The sheriff served you with a subpoena to testify at a hearing, and you do not know what to do.  How do you testify at a hearing?  What can you do, and what is not allowed?

To answer this, you first need to understand you are judged not only on what you say, but also on the nonverbal signals you communicate when you testify at a hearing. The nonverbal cues that you give make up a considerable part of your testimony. In other words, you convey a vast volume of information from the things that you don’t say, your facial expressions, and your body movements.

Secondly, you need to keep in mind that you have only one chance to make a good impression.  You must use that opportunity well. Do not take a laid-back approach to your testimony. Ensure that you are well prepared to give evidence at the trial. 

With this article, we aim to give you general pointers on what you can do to get through your testimony.  If you remember these five primary rules on giving evidence at a trial, it will not be a daunting experience. Let’s get started.

1.   IMPRESS THE JUDGE WHEN YOU TESTIFY AT THE HEARING

The golden rule to testify at a hearing is to impress the judge.  As stated above, a witness has only one opportunity to do so.  How can you achieve this?  Basically, you can achieve impressing the judge by:

  • Telling the truth;
  • Sticking to your story;
  • Readily admitting facts you should accept, even if it does not suit your case; and
  • Using the appropriate nonverbal signals to communicate.  These nonverbal signals include aspects like your appearance, your facial expressions, and your behavior.

1.1.    Dress neatly

Men must wear a dark suit with an elegant tie.  If you do not have a suit, you must wear a blazer.   

Ladies should dress in a stylish dress or a smart skirt and blouse.  Pair a jacket with it. 

Do not wear a t-shirt and jeans unless it is the only clothes you possess.  Although this is simple advice on your appearance, being well dressed impresses a judge immensely.

1.2.     Do not fidget in the witness box

Do not use your hands to help you talk.  It is preferable to keep your hands still in front of you or at your back and to sit up straight.  These nonverbal signs of communication conveys confidence, and that the witness is paying attention to what is going on. 

A witness that squirms or treads about in the witness box tells a story of stress and possible uncertainty.  These mannerisms can also indicate that a witness is either telling a lie or avoiding the truth. 

1.3.       Use the right form of address

Ask your attorney what the correct form of address for the presiding officer in your forum is.  We use “Your worship”  in a magistrate’s court and “Your lordship” in a high court.  To use the correct form of address when you speak to the judge conveys that you respect him or her.

You only need to address the judge.  You do not need to speak to the attorney that poses the questions to you.  Some attorneys use their facial expressions or body language to make you uncertain of your evidence or to rattle you. You can avoid this. You do not need to look at the attorney.  If it makes you more comfortable to do so, you can look at the judge the entire time.  Although the attorney asks the questions, you reply to the judge, and you only address the judge.

1.4      Do not try to be clever

A witness that works to be intelligent or witty during evidence does not win the admiration of the judge. It may instead create the impression that you are disrespectful and do not take the proceedings seriously.  You do not want to leave the judge with the idea that you are a joker, and, as a result, your testimony is not trustworthy.

Testify on the facts as you know them from your knowledge; in other words, only what you did, saw, read, or wrote.  The other witnesses will testify on their part of the evidence.

2    LISTEN TO THE QUESTION AND ANSWER ONLY THAT

When you testify at a hearing, it is not the time to use flowery words or impress your audience with your general knowledge of the case.  Wait for your attorney to ask the question on a specific aspect before you attempt to give evidence thereon. As far as it is possible, just answer the question and don’t give any other information, especially during cross-examination.  Do not elaborate or give long explanations.  Only do so when it is necessary. 

If you can get away with just a “yes” or a “no,” reply with only “yes” or “no.” If you must elaborate, keep your answer short and to the point. 

3    REMEMBER THAT WHICH IS IMPORTANT

It often happens that a witness remembers something vividly, but on other aspects, his memory is vague. You may then have to explain why you can’t remember that aspect as clearly as the rest.  The answer is simple:  it was not important. 

It is not out of the ordinary to remember some things better than others because it is human nature to forget that which is not significant.  Accordingly, you won’t have a specific recollection of a fact, although you were present at the occurrence thereof. You may, for instance, remember a particular date vividly because it happened to be your birthday as well. In contrast, you cannot recall another day because nothing special happened on that day.  The fact that you do not specifically recall both dates does not mean that you are lying; it merely means that one date was not important enough for you to remember the exact details off.

It is therefore allowed to say “I do not remember” or “I cannot recall” or “it was not important.”  Just be careful that you do not overuse these replies.  The other side will accuse you of having a selective memory and avoiding to answer because it does not suit your case.

4    DO NOT MAKE ANY CONCESSIONS WHEN YOU TESTIFY AT A HEARING

Although it impresses a judge when you readily admit a fact that does not suit your case under circumstances when you should do so, you must not make any critical concessions when you testify at a hearing. 

A concession is when you admit something. To understand the principle that you must not make any concessions when you testify at a hearing, you must first understand that your case is about, or why you must give evidence.  If, for instance, your defense is that you did not murder the victim, you must not, for example, concede that:

  • the victim was dead when you left him, or
  • that the victim is dead, or
  • your fingerprints are on the murder weapon

The above are all concessions that may indicate your guilt.  Speak to your attorney.  Make sure you understand the crucial aspects of your case before you enter the witness box.

5    REFRAIN FROM USING WORDS OF THE “INDEFINITE” WHEN YOU TESTIFY

“Words of the indefinite” are words that create uncertainty:  they cast doubt and are not specific – an answer using terms of the indefinite leaves you wondering what the exact position is. Accordingly, you must avoid words like “I think,” “I believe,” “a or b suggested that,” or “it is possible that,” as far as possible. 

Be precise with your testimony or descriptions of events.  Your response should leave no doubt on what exactly the position is.

Conclusion

We hope that the above pointers will help you to be positive, assertive, and confident when you testify at your hearing. Please remember we do not give legal advice on our blog.  Every case is different.  What applies to one instance does not necessarily apply to you.  The slightest change of facts may make a world of difference.  Therefore, the information contained on our website is for general purposes only.  We do not accept any responsibility for any loss or damages, direct or consequential, that may result because you relied on anything contained on these pages. 

It is your responsibility to obtain legal advice on your matter before you testify at a hearing.

If you need assistance to prepare your evidence, you are welcome to contact us.

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