Final hearings – top tips for giving evidence at Court

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Final hearings in both financial and children cases are fortunately uncommon. When considering the wealth of dispute resolution methods available to help separating couples in reaching an agreement, it is important to remember that final hearings really are not a prerequisite. The Court system itself is set up in a way which encourages parties to reach agreement by consent at every stage of the process. However, in some cases final hearings are necessary where agreement cannot be reached.

In my previous blog on final financial hearings on divorce, I set out what a financial final hearing consists of and many of the principles explained can also be applied to final hearings in children proceedings, particularly the general structure of the hearing itself.

As a party to a final hearing, both the applicant and respondent will have to give oral evidence. In some cases, the Court will also want to hear evidence from experts and third parties, for example an accountant, pensions expert, Cafcass officer or social services. In advance of the hearing, it is expected that both parties will have provided written evidence in the form of witness statements. At the hearing, the parties are then questioned on the contents of their written evidence and relevant events since.

Regardless of an individual’s personality, giving evidence at Court can be an uncomfortable and difficult process. The emotional impact of giving evidence should not be underestimated. Each party can be ‘cross-examined’ (ie. have their evidence challenged by the opposing party) which can be stressful and time consuming. This alone can be another compelling reason to reaching a consensual outcome.

Practical considerations for giving evidence

If you have a final hearing, what can you do to prepare yourself for giving evidence? One point that many people are unaware of is that your legal representative(s) is unable to coach or guide you on the evidence you are to give.

However, there are some general principles and steps worth considering in advance:-

  1. Preparation: Oral evidence is about getting information to the judge in the simplest way possible to enable them to decide what to do with that evidence. You will be asked to give an oath or affirmation to the Court swearing to tell the truth. Whilst giving evidence is not a memory test, and it is okay to not always have an answer to a question, it is  helpful to re-read your statement(s) several times before the hearing so that you are familiar with its contents.
  2. Asking for help: It is ok to take your time and think about the answer you will give to a question. If you do not understand the question, it is also fair to ask for it to be clarified or ask to be shown the page of the Court bundle which is being referred to. Whilst asking for help is acceptable, it is generally frowned upon for the witness themselves to question why they are being asked something and should be avoided where possible.
  3. Keep it short: Sometimes ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers are adequate. When a longer answer is appropriate, then it is important to remain focused and to stick to answering the question. Be aware that any inconsistencies in your evidence may lead to the judge making an adverse finding against you.
  4. Direct your response to the judge: Some of the best cross-examination is extremely measured and polite, however it is natural to feel riled and upset by the questions being asked. It is important to remain calm and it can be helpful to direct your response to the judge as opposed to the person asking the questions. Remember, the evidence is ultimately for the judge hearing the case and it will therefore assist them for your responses to be both clear and slow.
  5. Relax: Of course, this is far easier said than done. Like all new experiences, the thought is often worse than the reality. You will likely find you relax into giving evidence as it progresses.
  6. Seek early personal/professional support: Whether it be from family members, a lawyer or a therapist, it is important to talk about your concerns and worries. If, for example, you are an anxious, nervous person or have processing difficulties, specialist witness familiarisation and training is available. This training can help a witness feel more comfortable with the Court experience. This kind of coaching is generic and will not help a witness with the specific content of their evidence.
  7. Attire and hydration: whether your hearing is in person or via video link, dress smartly and ensure you have plenty of water to hand. Final hearings can be long and breaks can be brief. It can be helpful to have snacks prepared which you can grab quickly.

Final thoughts and comments

It is important to be aware that once you have started giving evidence, you will not be allowed to speak with anyone about your case until your evidence has finished, for example if Court were to adjourn for lunch or overnight. This will include your legal representative and family members. This brings significance to ensuring a witness is prepared and has asked any questions they might have in advance.

Finally, be prepared to reach a settlement outside of Court even on the day of the final hearing itself. Generally speaking, an outcome reached by consent rather than by a judge who knows very little about the individuals involved is the best one which enables you move on from the separation with a better mindset and will remove the need for giving oral evidence to the Court.

The above information is general guidance. If you have a final hearing listed, it is sensible to consider seeking specialist legal advice.

Charlotte Plowman is an experienced family law specialist within our Horsham team. If you would like further information on the options available in resolving a dispute arising from a separation, please feel free to contact Charlotte or another member of our dedicated team for a confidential discussion about your personal circumstances.

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