Nunatsiaq News
COMMENTARY: Around the Arctic June 16, 2017 - 2:30 pm

Legal Ease, June 16

Being a Witness: Just Answer the Question!


Earlier this week, I had great success challenging a witness who spent most of his time, while testifying, blaming everyone else for everything that happened to him.

While he was not blaming others, he spent his time arguing with me as to what exactly my questions meant and, on occasion, how poor my grammar was.

This witness was trying to justify what he did and why everything that happened was someone else’s fault. True or not, the witness’s justification just doesn’t matter.

By spending time justifying rather than explaining, the witness came to look not credible or believable.

The witness likely lost his company its case and with it, over a million dollars.

And yet that was not something that had to be.

The witness’s underlying story could have been true. But the way the witness told the story, it had no credibility at all.

If you are going to be a witness it is important to remember you are there for one reason only—to explain what you saw, heard, felt or otherwise perceived.

Justifying what you did and why you did it is not part of your role. That means if you are asked, say, what you did when you received a letter, you should say what you did and not, unless asked, why you did it.

Similarly, arguing with the lawyers (or worse the judge) is a bad idea. Don’t point out the question you have been asked is ridiculous—just answer the question.

Everyone at trial has a distinctive role. The role of the witness is to bring facts before the court so the lawyers can try to persuade the judge as to what happened and what it means legally.

Generally the witnesses are not on trial—they are merely the conduits through which the facts flow.

That means witnesses are not there to persuade or convince. They are there to set out (as simply and directly as they can) what happened. 

Being a witness is hard work. You need to do your very best to remember things that can be difficult and emotional. And then you have to say what happened without anger or upset. You need to be unemotional about things that are very emotional in their own nature.

James Morton is a lawyer practicing in Nunavut with offices in Iqaluit. The comments here are intended as general legal information and not as specific legal advice.

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