Giving evidence in court is never easy and can be stressful; the key to survival and success is preparation.
Biomedical scientists whose normal place of work is in a clinical laboratory can find themselves being asked to go to court in a variety of circumstances. They may be a witness to fact, they may be a professional witness or they may be an expert witness.
A witness to fact is someone who says what he or she saw during the normal course of events. A professional witness describes some thing that they did or saw while doing their job. An expert witness has some special expertise that isn't possessed by the average person. He can use this expertise to assist the court by giving an opinion on what a particular set of facts means. In the laboratory context, he may or may not have done the work that generated those facts himself.
Often the biomedical scientist is merely asked to produce a statement for purposes of continuity. Quite simply, he may be asked to describe how a sample of blood was brought to the laboratory and handed to him by a hospital porter, and to describe how he then, for example, used the samples for a group and cross match, and then placed it in a refrigerator from which he retrieved it the following day and handed it to Detective Trick Dacey of the Loamshire Constabulary. It would be unusual to have to give evidence in court about such usually uncontentious facts.
Never ever believe the nice policeman taking your statement who reassures you that you won't have to give evidence in court. If you give a statement, assume you are going to have to back up everything you have said in that statement in court.
If you have carried out analyses that are pertinent to the issues before the court you may find yourself having to give evidence. For example, if a patient comes in with an overdose of a controlled drug and you do the assay for clinical purposes, the sample being exhausted or disposed of before the need for a formal forensic examination is apparent, you may find yourself having to describe what you did and how you did it and what the results meant. Here the key is, as always, preparation coupled with a willingness to stick to your area of expertise. If the advocate tries to take you down a primrose path where you get progressively more and more unsure of your ground, stop. Just say that the answer to the question is beyond your expertise.
Whether you are going to appear in a civil, criminal or coroner's court there are some basic rules.
- Clear your absence from work with your manager. Make sure your duties are covered and if you are on call that evening that the shift is covered too. Always expect that Tarnoky's variant of Sturgeon's law will apply.1
- Make sure you know where the court is. If you are working in the south of England, get hold of a copy of The Court Guide. It not only tells you how to get there, it tells you where to eat and gives other useful details.2
- Make sure you are going to get there on time. Plan to arrive early, but not too early. It's a miserable experience standing in the rain outside Marylebone Magistrates Court in company with a bunch of chain smoking miscreants waiting for the doors to open.
- Dress in a way that would identify you as a competent professional. Don't wear your best interview suit; wear clothes that you feel comfortable in.
- Organise your papers. Have a copy of your statement, any standard textbooks and key literature references that you might need with you.
- Expect a security search when you arrive at the court. Security staff vary from the pleasant and helpful (the default) to obnoxious oppressive jobsworths who will try to confiscate things that you actually need for court from you, like calculators or palm top computers. If that happens to you, and sooner or later it will, mention it to the advocate running your case or the solicitor or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) representative just as soon as possible. Don't argue with the security office. You won't win. I tried on one occasion and got a body search by a security officer of the opposite sex for my pains.
- Don't take a penknife or scissors to court with you. They will cause a sense of humour failure in even the most relaxed and helpful of security officers.
- Always take tissues, a train time table, an A to Z and a supply of your favourite sweet: Polos, Mars, etc. A telephone credit card is useful. You may get your mobile phone confiscated by the security at the door.
- On arrival check which court you are in on the court list in the foyer and go to the court, looking for the police officer, CPS clerk or the solicitor who has asked you to attend. Particularly, if it is your first time, the Witness Service volunteers will be very helpful.
- Make a note of the trial number form the court list. You may need it to claim your expenses and fee.
- If you don't want to take an oath on the Bible, tell the usher or the Witness Service before you go into court. You can affirm, swear on the Old Testament or use another Holy Book.
- If you are appearing as an expert witness ask if you can sit in court to hear the preceding evidence. It's a lot more interesting and can be very useful. The right of an expert to sit in court before giving evidence is a discretionary one. It isn't always granted.
- Try to get someone, for example, the usher or a Witness Service volunteer to show you the layout of the court before the case starts.
- Turn off your mobile phone and pager before going into court. People have been sent to the cells for contempt when they have gone off in court.
- Don't have a drink at lunchtime if you are giving evidence in the afternoon.
- Judges in red are addressed as "My Lord" or "My Lady" as are all Old Bailey Judges, other Judges as "Your Honour", magistrates as "Sir" or "Your Worship", Coroners as "Sir". (Some female High Court Judges prefer to be addressed as "My Lord" rather than "My Lady".)
- Speak up in a clear voice, answer the question asked and nothing more, speak to the jury and watch the judge's pen. He is making a note of what you say.
- At the conclusion of your evidence, if you haven't been told you can go ask the judge if you may be released.
- Most important. Get the right form to claim your expenses and if appropriate a fee. Sort out with your employer what will happen to the fee before you go to court if you are going as a professional or expert. CPS always hand you your claim form as you arrive if you are appearing for the prosecution. Check with the defence solicitor that they will be responsible for your fees and or expenses if you are going for the defence.
And finally, appearing in Court is never easy. Remember the adage: "train hard, fight easy" and try to relax.
The advice given here is only applicable in England and Wales. Different procedures apply in Scotland.
A R W Forrest
Professor of Forensic Toxicology
University of Sheffield
1. Sturgeon's Law: "It always takes longer and costs more than you expect". Tarnoky's law: "Even allowing for Sturgeon's law it will take longer and cost more than you expect" (A L Trarnoky - former top grade biochem at Reading).
2. The Court Guide: 1999 edition. Andrew Goodman. (December 1998) Blackstone Press; ISBN 1854318691. £11.95.