A calm and collected approach is best when giving evidence in a family court. You are there to present your side of the story to the judge and lawyers present, so you will need to make your case clearly and coherently.
That does not mean you need to be an emotionless robot in the witness box. On the contrary, judges and lawyers expect a human being, and a tear or catch in the throat is entirely understandable if you are discussing an emotive topic such as access to your children. But any emotion you may feel should not get in the way of presenting the facts of your case or presenting your evidence coherently and constructively.
Preparing to give evidence
Unless you are a very confident public speaker, you may find it helpful to make notes beforehand, to organise your thoughts and ensure you have a clear sense of everything you will need to cover in your evidence. These can be long and detailed or simple bullet points – choose the approach that feels most comfortable to you.
If you are likely to be questioned – or ‘cross-examined’ – by lawyers for the opposing side when you appear in court, it might be sensible to think through the likeliest questions beforehand and consider how you might respond. The best qualified person for this process is a solicitor – so do ask yours for guidance if you have one.
The process of giving evidence
Giving evidence in a family court is very similar to giving evidence in a criminal court. The normal process is as follows:
- You will be called to the witness box (assuming this is a face-to-face hearing, not via video conference). Unless you are giving evidence on your own behalf, you will have been allocated a seat in the waiting room outside. Witnesses are not normally allowed to attend hearings that do not directly concern themselves. Generally, you will not have to wait too long – and certainly no more than a couple of hours.
- Once in the witness box, you will be asked to swear the traditional oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. This is an important ritual that conveys the solemnity of the occasion and the importance of honesty. Traditionally this is done on the Bible but you can also swear an oath on the holy book of another faith if you prefer. In addition, people who do not practice any religion can now simply “affirm” that their evidence will be truthful.
- Any cross-examination will follow your evidence, with counsel (lawyers) for each side taking turns to ask you questions.
- Once the questions have been completed, you will be allowed to leave the witness box. On occasion you may be asked to remain on hand for supplementary questions if additional issues have come up.
Things to remember when giving evidence
- Resist any temptation you may feel to digress. Stick to the topic at hand and get to the point as quickly as you can. Courts are busy and time is money.
- It’s okay to be nervous. Be honest and say if you are: most lawyers and judges will take this into account.
- If you are cross-examined, do not take such probing personally. No one is on trial in a family court. Testing evidence is an important part of court procedure: it allows judges to establish the facts and reach a fair verdict quickly.