If you are called as a witness in a divorce case, you have probably chosen sides. After all, your friend, relative or employer is the one who asked for your help, it is only natural for you to feel loyalty to that person.
If you are a brother, sister, mother or father, your whole family could be effected by the court’s decision. If you are a teacher or day care provider, you may feel closer to the parent you know better. Regardless of why you are being called on to describe your contact with the family, the following tips will serve you well.
1. Tell the truth. You may feel inclined to color your testimony to help the person who called you. Hopefully, what you say will do that. However, if you exaggerate or lie, it is likely that opposing counsel will spot inconsistencies in what you say, and will ask you clarifying questions in cross-examination that can make it look like you weren’t being totally honest in the first place. If that happens, the judge is less likely to take your statements seriously.
2. Don’t get angry. That can be difficult. We lawyers are trained to ask questions in the most annoying way possible. We are trying to protect our client’s interests, and the less credibility the opposition’s witnesses have, the better off we are. If we can get a rise out of someone, or make them seem hostile, we have a better chance of showing the judge that what they say shouldn’t be given much weight. After all, if they are telling the truth, they wouldn’t have any reason to get defensive, would they?
3. Make sure you answer the question you are asked. Sometimes, you may think the judge needs information you have, and that the lawyers aren’t going to ask for it. This may be so, but the lawyer may have good reason not to solicit that particular fact.
The judge may not be sympathetic to what you could say, and the lawyer doesn’t want to annoy him. The other facts that have been brought out may make the bit you want to add unhelpful to the case. Even if it is something the lawyer wants to put into evidence, there may be other things that have to be established first.
If you blurt out your contribution ahead of time, it could damage its effectiveness. Some things have to have a “foundation” before they can be put into evidence. If what you say is the subject of the other side’s objection, it won’t be as easy to use when it might have done the most good.
4. If you don’t understand the question, ask for clarification. Explain that you don’t understand what information is being sought if you don’t know. Don’t play dumb. However, if what you are asked doesn’t make sense, it may have been poorly expressed.
Lawyers can be in a situation where they know what information they want, but they just aren’t sure how to get it. Things change during a trial, and the testimony that seemed necessary in preparation may not be so important as the case develops. Conversely, things may come up that the lawyer didn’t consider beforehand, and she may suddenly realize that a piece of information may be useful.
Unfortunately, that kind of question may arise so suddenly that it doesn’t come out right. The moral here is that you should always understand what you are answering, and you should never hesitate to ask for more information before you respond if you need it.
5. In some cases, the lawyers request what is called a “separation of witnesses”. This is done so one person can’t change their testimony based on what he heard another person say on the witness stand. After you have testified, you may be able to stay and see the rest of the case. Whether no separation was requested, or you are allowed to stay and watch the Proceedings after you have spoken, there is a tip that will keep you from being yelled at, removed from the courtroom, or in extreme situations sent to jail for contempt of court.
Don’t shake your head. Don’t laugh. Don’t heckle the witness, even if you do think the performance is bogus. Don’t try to provide answers to the witness. In short, pretend you are a fly on the wall, and don’t say a word unless the judge or one of the attorneys asks you to.