You may be called upon to be a witness in a lawsuit or other legal proceeding where you are not a party. Your job as a witness in such a proceeding 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 could face jail time if convicted.
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.
The lawyer calling you as a witness and other lawyers involved may want to talk with you before trial. It is their job to try to find out what you know about the case, and they may explain courtroom procedures to you. Generally, it is your choice whether to talk to the lawyers before the trial; however, in a criminal case there may be consequences for not cooperating with the prosecuting attorney.
One or more of the parties in a lawsuit may want your testimony under oath before trial. The taking and recording of testimony before 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 the parties prepare their cases. Sometimes, the deposition testimony encourages the parties to settle before trial.
During trial, a lawyer may object to a question 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 trial or at a deposition — could connect you with the commission of a crime, you have the constitutional right to refuse to answer the question, and may talk with your lawyer before answering the question. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the court may be able to 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:
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 person questioning you to repeat or explain the question. Do not try to answer a question 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 the 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 testimony. No one remembers every detail perfectly. Memorized testimony will not sound like the truth.
Do not become angry and 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 only required to tell 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 and be polite. Do not chew gum. Your appearance and the way you act in court affect what the judge and jury think about your testimony.
Relax. Look at the members of the jury and try to talk to them just as you would talk to any friends or neighbors.
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.
Legal editor: Simeon D. Rapoport, January 2016.