As West Ashley divorce lawyers, we are frequently asked by nervous clients how they should look and act when giving testimony on the stand. Our advice in this regard usually varies from client to client, but I recently came upon a pamphlet produced by the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office that I believe succinctly and accurately provides advice on court appearances that would apply to anybody (full credit for the following belongs to the Victim Witness Division of the Solicitor’s Office — I am quoting from their pamphlet word-for-word. Anything editorial comments I make will be italicized).
1. Dress appropriately and be courteous.
You should dress neatly (as if you are attending a job interview or church), answer the questions clearly, and conduct yourself in a courteous manner. Remember, your testimony has a direct bearing on the jury’s (or judge’s, there are no juries in the Family Court system) decision.
2. Stay alert.
It is important that you can hear, understand, and give a proper response to each question so that the Judge or jury does not get the impression that you are bored or indifferent (always be mindful that there is no rush, you may take as much time on the stand as you need).
3. Think before you speak.
Give the question such thought as it requires to understand it and formulate your answer. If your answer was not correctly stated, correct it immediately. Explain your answer if the answer can’t be correctly understood on the basis of a simple yes or no (but, crucially, if the question can be answered with a simple yes or no, answer with a simple yes or no).
4. Answer all questions directly.
Don’t volunteer any information – if you know the answer to a question, you are expected to give a specific and responsive answer (see above regarding yes and no responses).
5. Be fair.
Don’t exaggerate your testimony or try to slant it. Do not show hostility toward the defendant of his attorney (hostility will be read by a Family Court judge as an indicator that your testimony may be less than reliable). Justice will be served only if you make your testimony as objective as possible.
6. Never lose your temper.
When a witness loses his temper, he places himself at the mercy of the cross examiner (again, a witness’s demeanor is a large factor in determining a witness’s credibility). Courts are only interested in the facts of the case.
7. Be prepared to wait.
Very likely, there will be other cases to be handled that same day or court term. You may want to bring something to occupy this time (but make sure your cell phone is turned off before setting foot in a courtroom).
8. Always tell the truth.
A skillful attorney can work with the truth, however damaging it may appear to be, but lies can and will be fatal to your case.