Standing alone, addressing an aggressive advocate and trying to remember what happened in a case several years ago is a daunting prospect. Yet with some thought it is possible to make the experience of giving evidence easier, writes Mark Solon, solicitor and managing director of legal training company Bond Solon
1. Direct yours answers to the decision-maker
The social worker needs to appreciate that it is the magistrate or judge who is making the decision in the case and that all answers should be addressed to them. However, the questioning will come from the advocate. We suggest that as soon as the social worker takes the stand, they should point their feet towards the decision-maker.
The social worker should look at the person who asks them the question, by twisting their hips to face the advocate, and then turn back on each occasion to the magistrate or judge to give their response.
When the social worker has finished giving their answer, they should turn back to the advocate for the next question. This technique puts the social worker in control, slows the pace down and allows them to focus on directing their answer to the person who is making the decision in the case.
2. Seek assistance of the decision-maker
The social worker should address everything through the magistrate or judge. If the social worker has not understood the question, or wishes it to be rephrased, then this should be requested through the decision-maker. This is also a matter of respecting the fact that the decision-maker is presiding over the case.
However, care should be taken by the social worker if they feel that the question is irrelevant, inappropriate or indeed personal. Ultimately, it is for the magistrate or judge to decide, and not the social worker, if a question is to be answered.
A court is not a natural environment. It is important to take time and speak clearly and slowly when giving evidence. In particular, avoid using jargon and technical terms.
While the social worker is addressing the decision-maker, the latter will often be taking notes. The social worker may need to slow down in order to give them time to write. There is no microphone in court so the social worker needs to speak at an appropriate volume.
The social worker should not assume that the decision-maker has read or understood everything. They therefore need to take every opportunity when answering questions to elaborate and expand in order to ensure that they have given sufficient detail to the decision-maker. The decision-maker will normally indicate if they have understood.
5. Be ready for cross-examination techniques
The role of the cross-examining advocate is to try and limit and restrict an answer, look for flaws in the evidence and attempt to discredit the expertise of the social worker. The social worker should treat every question as an opportunity to give as much relevant detail as they feel necessary.
Techniques on cross-examination differ but may include interruptions, closed questions, multiple questions, hypothetical questions, or indeed an attack on the social worker’s qualifications and expertise. The advocate may also try and undermine the social worker through their tone of voice or gestures.
By taking a moment before answering every question and directing their response towards the decision-maker, the social worker can decide how much detail to give. If the social worker has not understood the question or is interrupted before giving their full response, then they should seek the assistance of the decision-maker.
The social worker may also simply ignore any gestures or other theatrics designed to undermine them.
6. Don’t go outside the facts or area of expertise
The social worker’s role as a professional witness is to inform the court of the facts of the case. If the social worker is asked about facts that they do not know, then they cannot answer the question.
Community Care is holding a family justice conference in London on 5 December. It will help you carry out better section 47 assessments and better prepare you for court appearances. Register your interest or request a brochure here.