In a guide for Community Care Inform, Shefali Shah provides advice for local authority social workers on preparing for court and presenting yourself as a calm, truthful and professional witness. Shah is a solicitor, a former local authority lawyer and a legal trainer at Kingsley Knight Legal Training and Consultancy. These are a few key tips from the guide. Community Care Inform subscribers can read the full piece on Inform Children and Inform Adults.
Appearing in court can be a stressful prospect for social workers, and feeling anxious or fearful is not at all unusual. But it is also an important part of the job, and can be vital in securing the right outcomes for vulnerable service users. In a 2017 case, Judge Simon Wood publicly praised a social worker’s “thoughtful and reflective” evidence in court. He also included most of the social worker’s oral evidence when setting out his judgement, given how “direct in relevance” it was.
Speak slowly and clearly
People often speak very quickly when they are in the witness box, perhaps because they are nervous or want their session in the witness box to be over as quickly as possible. Rushing is not helpful – your answers may not come across clearly and you could be misunderstood. You could then be asked the same question again, which may make you more nervous and worried about your answer. Also, if you speak too quickly, the judge or the legal clerk may not be able to take a clear note of what you said and may have to ask you to slow down.
Instead, the trick is: listen to the question, pause to think, take the time to breathe and then answer clearly and at a steady pace.
Answer the judge
Direct your answers to the judge or the magistrates and not to the lawyers. This may not feel natural as you may be facing the lawyers when listening to the question, and will then have to turn to the judge or magistrate. The lawyers might also be facing the judge rather than you when asking the question. Remember to turn so that you face the judge or the magistrates, even if it is for a short answer of “yes” or “no”.
Focus on remaining calm and truthful
Remember you do not need to know everything. If you do not know something then do not be frightened to say so. Never guess or bluff the answer as you can get caught out. Most importantly, always be truthful – you will have taken either the oath or affirmation and thereby made a solemn promise to the court to tell the truth.
Never argue with the advocate or lawyer, or come across as argumentative or aggressive. Focus on presenting your answers in an assertive and confident way. If you disagree with the advocate, then simply say so. Do not become defensive if asked a difficult question. Just breathe and answer the question to the best of your ability. Always keep calm, stay in control and present yourself in a professional way.