Following last week’s post from Karen Jeary sharing what the family courts expect from parents in children proceedings, this post has been designed to help parents prepare for giving evidence in court.
If you are a parent involved in court proceedings about your child, you are likely experiencing one of the most stressful times in your life. It is difficult enough for those who have a lawyer guiding them through the process, but many parents find that they have no choice but to represent themselves as they can’t afford representation and legal aid is only available for family cases in very limited circumstances.
The conclusion of the proceedings, if you have not been able to reach an agreement with the other parent along the way, will be a final hearing. You are likely to be asked to give evidence at this hearing which can feel very intimidating if you don’t know what to expect.
As a lawyer I have a duty to the court, not just my client, so I am not allowed to ‘coach’ my clients. I cannot for example rehearse likely questions and answers with them before they give evidence.
What I am able to do is explain to my clients what is likely to happen on the day and give them some tips to make sure that they present themselves (and their case) in the best possible way. It also helps to lessen the nerves and anxiety which are inevitable.
Tips for parents giving evidence in court
What happens at a final hearing?
If they are instructed, the family lawyers will usually start by giving their opening statements. If you are representing yourself then you can give an opening statement but try to keep it concise and factual. This is an opportunity to summarise your case and explain how it is illustrated by the evidence before the court. It is not an opportunity for you to give evidence or opinion. If in doubt keep it short, if you end up ranting about the other parent or how unfairly you have been treated it will not help how the court perceives you.
Next the court will hear evidence. Usually any professional witnesses, such as social workers or Cafcass officers, will be heard first, followed by the applicant and then the respondent. When it is your turn to give evidence, you will go into the witness box where you should find drinking water and the trial bundle, which is a bundle of all the papers in the case which are being considered by the court. You will be asked to swear that you will tell the truth by swearing an oath (religious) or affirming (promising the court). You must take this seriously, if you lie whilst giving evidence you will be in contempt of court. You will then be taken to your statements of evidence and asked to confirm that they are true.
Your family lawyer, if you have one, may ask you some questions to clarify or update your written evidence. The other party’s lawyer, or if there is no lawyer the other party themselves, will then have an opportunity to ask you questions. This is called cross examination and is an opportunity to ‘stress test’ your evidence. Your lawyer then has a chance to ask you a few more questions at the end if they feel it would be helpful. Sometimes the Judge or Magistrates will ask you some questions as you go, or save questions until the end.
After everyone has given evidence there is an opportunity for closing statements. If you are representing yourself, similar rules apply to the opening statement. It is an opportunity to highlight to the court how the evidence that has been heard supports the case which you had set out at the start of the hearing. Keep it to the point and concise.
Tips for giving evidence
If you remember these tips while you give evidence you should give your best impression to the court.
- Re-read any written statements you have filed to refresh your memory. Also familiarise yourself with the rest of the evidence before the court. Concentrate on the issues that are in dispute and the weak areas of your case, as these are the areas that you are most likely to be questioned about.
- It may seem obvious but the most important thing is to listen to the question and make sure you answer the question that is asked. Keep your answers to the point. Don’t be tempted to elaborate or find yourself going off at a tangent, it may not be relevant and could even be damaging to your case. If you don’t understand a question, say so.
- Take your time. Speak slowly and clearly, the lawyers and Judge or Magistrate will be taking notes as you go. Make sure you fully understand the question and think about your answer before you start talking.
- Try not to be defensive. This is easier said than done when the other party’s lawyer may be intentionally trying to trip you up. You don’t want to give the impression you have something to hide and defensiveness can sometimes be misinterpreted as aggression. Your evidence will be more persuasive if you appear to be relaxed and open with the court.
- Keep your cool. Stay polite and calm. If you lose your temper in the witness box the Judge or Magistrate may be wondering what you are like behind closed doors.
- Direct your answers to the Judge or Magistrates. They will be assessing your answers to inform their final decision. It may also be easier to give a calm and reasoned answer to them than the lawyer who is intentionally asking you tricky questions.
- You may find the experience stressful and/or upsetting. If you need a break, let the Judge or Magistrates know. Also speak up if you need a comfort break, sometimes cross-examination can go on for some time and will be difficult to concentrate and give your best evidence if you are distracted by needing the toilet. There should be water in the witness box, but if you need some, ask.
There is no doubt that appearing in court can be a daunting experience and when it involves your family, all sorts of emotions may be involved. Taking specialist professional advice from a family lawyer throughout your case will not only improve your chances of securing the best outcome, but the right family lawyer will provide important emotional support too.
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