Your job as a witness in a lawsuit is very important. As a witness you must tell the truth. A witness who knowingly does not tell the truth could be subject to criminal prosecution and if convicted could face jail time.
The lawyer calling you as a witness or other lawyers involved in the case may talk about the case with you before the trial. It is the lawyer's job to try to find out what you know about the case and explain courtroom procedures to you. However, you do not have to talk to the lawyer before the trial if you do not want to.
In some lawsuits, one of the parties may want your testimony under oath before trial. The taking and recording of testimony before the actual trial is called a deposition, usually conducted in the office of one of the lawyers. A word-for-word transcript is made of the deposition. A deposition helps each party in the lawsuit prepare his or her case. In some cases, the evidence in the deposition encourages the parties to settle the lawsuit before the trial.
During a trial, a lawyer may object to a question that you are asked. If that happens, stop talking immediately. If the judge overrules the objection, you may then answer the question. If the judge sustains the objection, you may not answer.
If you feel that your answer — at a trial or a deposition — could connect you with the commission of a crime, you have a constitutional right to refuse to answer that question and may talk with your lawyer before answering the question. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the court may provide one at no cost to you to advise you regarding answering the question.
Here are some general rules to follow when serving as a witness:
Be attentive. You must be alert at all times so that you can hear, understand and give proper and accurate answers to all questions. If the judge or jury thinks that you are indifferent, they may not believe your testimony.
Think before you speak. Hasty and thoughtless answers may be incorrect.
Speak clearly. If the judge and jury do not hear your testimony, they may think that you are not certain about what you are saying.
If you do not understand a question, ask the lawyer to repeat or explain it. Do not try to answer a question that you do not understand. Don't guess if you are not certain.
Answer all questions directly. If a question can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no," that is all you need to say.
Stick to facts. Don't color your testimony to help a friend or relative. Keep your testimony as objective as possible.
Do not try to memorize your story. No one remembers every detail perfectly. A memorized story will not sound like the truth.
Do not lose your temper.
If you do not know the answer to a question, tell the person who is questioning you that you don't know the answer. You are required to tell only what you know.
If you do not remember something, say so. Tell the person who is questioning you that you do not remember. No one is expected to have a perfect memory.
Dress neatly. Your appearance and the way you act in court affect what the judge and jury think about your testimony.
Do not chew gum. Look at the members of the jury and try to talk to them just as you would talk to any friend or neighbor.
Turn off all cell phones and other electronic devices before entering the courtroom where the trial is being held or the office where your deposition is being taken.