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How to survive and thrive when giving evidence in court as a social worker

Dr Sharif Haider outlines some tips for the sometimes daunting experience of appearing as an expert witness in court.


How to survive and thrive when giving evidence in court as a social worker

Giving evidence in court for some social workers can be frightening, paralysing and nerve-racking. Although for some it can be a daunting experience – especially giving evidence for the first time – it is a rewarding one because your evidence could safeguard some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society. Research suggests that social workers are not confident to give evidence to court.

This brief article will equip you with the tools and techniques you need to survive and thrive in giving evidence in court. Preparation is paramount to provide evidence competently, confidently and professionally. A good preparation will enable you to answer questions in court clearly and succinctly. Early preparation will reduce your sense of anxiety when giving evidence. So, read your report several times and read up your case thoroughly.

Read other parties’ statements and reports. By doing all these things you will acquire an understanding of which questions advocates may ask you; you become familiar with the main issues or concerns; all the salient matters of the case will stay fresh in your head. Your ultimate aim is to give evidence that will persuade the court of your decision making, reasoning, and recommendations. Present yourself in the court in good time so that you can make yourself familiar with the surroundings.

As court cases do not always run to time do expect a delay. Dress smartly in the court. You will need to take an oath or affirmation. Decide whether you wish to swear an oath or affirmation. If you choose not to take the oath you must make a solemn affirmation to the same effect.

Using core social work skills such as communication should support you to survive and thrive when the judge or magistrates or advocates ask you questions. You need to 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 him or her 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. Do not give more than what is asked for, do not ramble or avoid the question or answer the question with a question that could lead to an argument.

Do not make things up; answer the question exactly as asked. If you do not know the answer, say so; never speculate or hypothesise. Do not exaggerate, or be evasive or argumentative. You need to be honest in your intent and speech. Remember the attitude and behaviour you display in the court adds to the credibility of your verbal testimony.

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. Be aware of your role and remit, and answer questions accordingly.

Do not cross the boundary of giving opinions and answers beyond your expertise, for example, by answering questions related to the expertise of medical professionals. Bear in mind that the role of the advocate is to undermine your evidence. On occasions this might mean the advocate trying to play one witness off against another or seeking to trap you in order to criticise your practice.

Eye contact with the person we talk to is expected in Western culture. When you are giving evidence it is vital that you provide evidence of credibility to magistrates or the judge. That means looking at him/her even when an advocate asks you a question. If you do not look at the magistrate or judge you will fail to engage with the final arbiter and will be unable to learn how your evidence is being received. Some judges or magistrates may not give you feedback, but keeping eye contact will reduce the likelihood of him/her being influenced by the opposing advocate’s non-verbal language.

As a social worker, you are aware how powerful body language can be. You can easily be distracted and therefore 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.

If you are standing in the witness box, angle your body in the direction of the judge or magistrates, so that, when you talk by default you look at them. When advocates ask you questions only then turn your head and shoulders towards them and then provide your answer by moving your head and shoulders back to the judge or magistrates.

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.

There is a tendency for some social workers to use jargon and complex language. 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. 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. 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).

Speak clearly and at a pace that enables everyone to easily understand your evidence. When we are nervous some of us speak quickly, some of us mumble, some of us become hesitant and some of us may become confused. You should be self-aware of your behaviour specifically when you are nervous or anxious. Bear in mind nervousness and anxieties could control you and you may not 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. Always remember when giving evidence in court, it is not only about what you say, but also how you say it. You are being listened to by the judge or magistrate with his/her ears and eyes.

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. Afterwards After giving evidence make sure that you speak with your manager or a close colleague to talk through your experiences. It will help you to destress and by reflecting, you will know how to do things differently next time.

A debriefing is vital because a negative experience in court can have a negative impact on you and your practice. Hence, you need to reflect critically on your experiences and learn from them. You may want to seek feedback (where possible) about your performance. It may support your future development.

This article was originally published in COMPASS, the annual guide to social work and social care.

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