Giving Evidence in the County Court: A Guide
- AuthorAndrew Morley
There is a County Court in every major town and city in England and Wales. These civil courts deal with a vast array of cases such as those involving breach of contract, negligence, accidents, consumer disputes, debt, land disputes, landlord and tenant cases, mortgages and arguments over the terms of someone's Will, as well as divorce and matters affecting children from a relationship which has broken down.
Andrew Morley, Chartered Legal Executive and Partner at Chattertons has forty years' experience dealing with County Court cases and considers here what a witness needs to know when called to give evidence.
We are concerned here with non-expert witnesses.
Both the parties (those bringing and defending a case) and those called to court to assist them, are considered to be witnesses. Their evidence will have been put in written witness statements and shared by the parties and the Judge before the hearing or trial. At the hearing a witness will take the oath and will then confirm that the statement in the bundle of court documents is theirs, contains everything they wish to say and nothing they don't wish to say and, most important, that it is true.
Witness statements are signed with a statement of truth in which the witness acknowledges that he/she knows that to make a false statement without an honest belief in its truth could be a contempt of court for which they can be punished.
The lawyer representing the opposing party then has the chance to cross-examine the witness in an attempt to find inconsistencies in their evidence and so persuade the Judge that the alternative version of events put forward by their client is the correct one.
Finally the lawyer who has called the witness can ask questions, called re-examining their witness, in order to clarify anything.
Often a Judge will ask their own questions too.
So attending at court can be daunting, often with much at stake. In the County Court the Judge decides a case on what is called the balance of probabilities so in percentage terms if a party persuades the Judge that he is 51% likely to be right then he/she has won the case outright. This means that in finely balanced cases it can be the smallest of points that win the day.
Here are some tips to assist any witness to give their best and help the Judge make the right decision.
- Top of the list and most obvious of all is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth;
- Read over your witness statement several times in the days before the hearing to make sure you know it inside out;
- If you have the chance familiarise yourself with the hearing/trial bundle so you can navigate your way around all the documents in the case during your evidence;
- Whoever is asking the questions, direct your answers to the Judge. This can seem quite odd and can take a bit of getting used to;
- If the answer to a question is a simple "yes" or "no" then simply say that and nothing more;
- If you don't know the answer to a question then say so;
- If you do not understand a question then say so;
- Do not try to embellish your answers;
- Do not assume that everyone is familiar with any documents you are referring to, even if they are in the hearing/trial bundle;
- Recognise that the job of the lawyer representing the other side is to trip you up, hence the need to be prepared and maintain your cool;
- Never try to second guess where a line of questioning may be going and then frame your answers accordingly – remember, the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
This Blog is written to raise awareness of these issues. While every effort has been made to ensure that it is correct at the time of first publication it may not be updated, even if the law changes. It is not intended to be specific legal advice and cannot be relied on as such. Chattertons are not responsible or liable for any action taken or not taken as a result of this Blog.