Examining Witnesses - Examination-in-chief
This is where you obtain evidence from your own witnesses. You need to ensure that your witnesses give clear evidence and that they do not talk too fast in order that notes can be taken. Ensure the witness faces the Judge when answering questions and is not looking at you. This will enhance the quality of their evidence. When asking your witnesses questions, you need to try to elicit from them only the evidence that is relevant. Always therefore bear in mind why you are asking your witness a particular question and what is you want to hear from them.
During examination-in-chief the solicitor advocate is forbidden from asking their witnesses leading questions. A leading question is one which requires a 'yes' or 'no' response. In its phrasing it suggests its own answer. By way of an example, was the man wearing a red and white jumper? By suggesting the answer to the witness you reduce the witness' impact. Leading questions are forbidden in examination-in-chief because the solicitor is not allowed to lead their witness and in effect put words into their mouth. When you call your own witness you hope and expect that they will provide evidence that is favourable to your case and will 'come up to proof'.
As a general rule when you ask your witness questions you should phrase your questions using simple words and phrases to ensure the witness fully understands what you are asking them. When questioning your witnesses consider using points of reference to add variety to your questioning and to move the witness along from one episode to the next. For example, 'can you tell us what happened after you saw the car swerve?'
Unfavourable and Hostile Witnesses
You will, at any early stage in the proceedings, take statements from each of your witnesses. When a witness is giving their evidence through examination-in-chief you would expect them to give answers consistent with their previous statement. However, in some situations a witness does not give the answers expected of them. The witness can then be declared either unfavourable or hostile.
- An unfavourable witness is one whose testimony does not advance the case of the party who called him, despite the witness's best intentions. A witness will be unfavourable if they cannot recall some of the facts about their testimony. If you come across an unfavourable witness you can ask the court for leave for the witness to refresh his memory by reading his previous statement. It is very often the case that cases come to trial many months after the witness has provided a statement. Therefore, it is important that before your witness gives their evidence that they have the opportunity to read their previous statements to refresh their memory so that when they are being asked questions they are familiar with what they said in their original statement. They are then less likely to become an unfavourable witness and will hopefully enhance the strength of your case. If after reading their previous statement the witness still cannot recall the facts then you cannot assist your witness by putting leading questions or prompting them. You should instead try to get the witness out of the witness box as soon as possible.
- A hostile witness is different from an unfavourable one. Whilst an unfavourable witness can be potentially damaging to your case, a more serious situation is having a hostile witness. A witness will be 'hostile' if the evidence they give is harmful to the side calling them and it conflicts with the expectations of that side. A hostile witness will have no desire to tell the truth and support the case of the party calling him. An example of a witness being hostile is a witness who has deliberately changed their evidence since they made their original statement. The party calling this witness can ask the Judge to grant leave to treat them as a hostile witness.
Open and Closed Questions
You can ask your witnesses a variety of open and closed questions. To obtain the information you require from a witness it will be necessary to use for example closed questions to establish the background and set the scene and to bring out details or emphasise a particular part of the story. Open questions will be necessary to allow the witness to freely tell their part of the story or to turn their attention to a subject and then ask the witness to talk about that subject. If you ask more closed questions, you will have greater control. However, what type of questions you ask will depend on the witness.
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