What to do if you have to go to court
I say in my safeguarding training that it is rare that a frontline member of the children’s workforce should be called on to attend court to safeguard a child. On the other hand, it is possible, and when it happens it is vital that individuals feel that they are fully prepared. There are few aspects of safeguarding children that are quite so intimidating. Yet is important that everyone is prepared to undertake this vital task. The children in our care deserve nothing but the very best in terms of our advocacy and commitment to them.
So this is the advice that I offer to those professionals who have to go to court.
- Acknowledge your fears. Giving evidence in court for some professionals can be frightening, paralysing and nerve-racking. Take action early.
- Be clear on your motivation. Your evidence could safeguard some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society. Aim to give evidence that will persuade the court of your decision making, reasoning, and recommendations.
- Remember it is not only about what you say, but also how you say it. The attitude and behaviour you display in the court adds to the credibility of your verbal testimony.
- Prepare. Read your report several times and read up on the case thoroughly, read other parties’ statements and reports. Predict questions and rehearse your answers.
- Dress smartly.
- Present yourself in the court in good time so that you can make yourself familiar with the surroundings.
- Expect a delay. Bring reading material to distract you from the wait.
- Expect to take an oath or affirmation, so decide which in advance. If you choose not to take the oath you must make a solemn affirmation to the same effect.
- Try to focus your attention of the decision-maker, even when an advocate asks you a question. If you do not look at the decision-maker, you will fail to engage with the final arbiter and will be unable to learn how your evidence is being received. Some decision-makers may not give you feedback but keeping eye contact will reduce the likelihood of them being influenced by the opposing advocate’s non-verbal language. Try to point your feet towards the decision-maker whilst looking at the advocate asking you the question, by twisting your hips to face them, and then turning back on each occasion to the magistrate or judge to give their response. When you have finished giving your answer, turn back to the advocate for the next question. This technique also helps slow the pace down of the advocate, giving you more control and time to consider your answer.
- In some courts, you may sit and give evidence. In that situation angle your chair towards the judge or magistrates. If the seat is fixed, angle your body in such a way that enables you to face the Bench. When you provide evidence, you should concentrate on both your verbal and non-verbal language. Present yourself as a confident and competent practitioner. Your body language and posture will help you to achieve this.
- Actively listen to the questions and try to understand the motive of the questions. Basically, you need to follow the principle of understanding before you are understood.
- If you are not clear how to respond, ask for the question to be repeated or rephrased. There will be occasions when advocates will ramble and may not ask a question clearly. By requesting to repeat and rephrase you may be doing a favour to everyone in the court. Do not try to guess what the question means because there is the danger that you may give a different answer, probably one that is irrelevant and not required which could then initiate further questions.
- Remember that answering instantly is not the requirement of the court, nor is it expected, so do not feel uncomfortable when taking time to answer a question. A court is not a natural environment and it is more important to take time and speak clearly and slowly when giving evidence. Speak at a pace that enables everyone to easily understand your evidence. While you are addressing the decision-maker (magistrate or judge), they will often be taking notes. You may need to slow down in order to give them time to write.
- Try to provide a balanced picture of the case. This would show that you have weighed-up evidence i.e., you need to balance positives against negatives. This also demonstrates that you are not biased and that you are approaching the matter professionally and competently.
- Remember that straightforward evidence is what the judge and magistrates want. Presenting issues in a simple manner does not reflect upon your competence and professionalism.
- Speak at an appropriate volume; there is no microphone in court.
- Be aware of your body language.
- 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 your expertise. You 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 your qualifications and expertise. The advocate might try to play one witness off against another, or seek to trap you in order to criticise your practice. They may also try and undermine you through their tone of voice or gestures. By taking a moment before answering every question and directing your response towards the decision-maker, you can decide how much detail to give. You may also simply ignore any gestures or other theatrics designed to undermine you.
- Afterwards, process your experience and your emotions with your manager and the people who are closest to you. Reflect critically on your performance and seek feedback if possible.
- Let nerves get to you. Do not mumble, appear hesitant and become confused. Nervousness and anxieties could control you and you may not be able to provide the full evidence that you want to. Worst of all, cross-examining advocates will realise that you are not giving full evidence or becoming emotional or defensive, they will then seek to undermine your evidence.
- Make things up; answer the question exactly as asked. If you do not know the answer, say so; never speculate or hypothesise.
- Exaggerate or be evasive or argumentative. You need to be honest in your intent and speech.
- Give more than what is asked for; do not ramble.
- Avoid the question or answer the question with a question; that may lead to an argument.
- Assume that the decision-maker has read or understood everything. Take every opportunity when answering questions to elaborate and expand in order to ensure that you have given sufficient detail to the decision-maker. The decision-maker will normally indicate if they have understood.
- Don’t get distracted and lose the thread of your thinking, or entirely forget what you planned to say. Some advocates might deliberately try to control the cross-examination by showing boredom or unbelieving expressions. If you look at the judge or magistrates, you break the eye contact with the advocate and gain control of what you are saying and you avoid being distracted. The question is how you can achieve this without being rude to the advocates.
- Use jargon and technical terms, as is sometimes the tendency for some professionals. It is preferable to use simple and plain language. Your aim should be to use your language in such a way that enables people to understand your testimony effortlessly. You should not make things complex, as this type of reasoning might confuse the judge or magistrate.
- At all costs avoid using vulgar and discriminatory language. In some instances, you may need to quote verbatim words to illustrate your point about an individual’s attitudes and behaviour. In such circumstances, you should say that you are quoting their language i.e., exact word(s).
- Go outside the facts or area of expertise. Your role as a professional witness is to inform the court of the facts of the case. If you are asked about facts that you do not know, you cannot answer the question