Here is some general information for you:
Family lawyers will usually start by giving their opening statements. If you are representing yourself then you can give an opening statement but try to keep it concise and factual. This is an opportunity to summarise your case and explain how it is illustrated by the evidence before the court. It is not an opportunity for you to give evidence or opinion. If in doubt keep it short, if you end up ranting about the other parent or how unfairly you have been treated it will not help how the court perceives you.
Next the court will hear evidence. Usually any professional witnesses, such as social workers or Cafcass officers, will be heard first, followed by the applicant and then the respondent. When it is your turn to give evidence, you will go into the witness box where you should find drinking water and the trial bundle, which is a bundle of all the papers in the case which are being considered by the court. You will be asked to swear that you will tell the truth by swearing an oath (religious) or affirming (promising the court). You must take this seriously, if you lie whilst giving evidence you will be in contempt of court. You will then be taken to your statements of evidence and asked to confirm that they are true.
You can start by updating your evidence if needed. You will then be cross examined. Sometimes the Judge or Magistrates will ask you some questions as you go, or save questions until the end.
You will also be given the opportunity o cross examine the other party. In general the judge may limit the amount of time you have to cross exmaine, but if you need more time to get across your point and you have not been asking pointless questions then you should be allowed to continue as necessary. Be reasonable though, the court has limited time available to hear a case.
After everyone has given evidence there is an opportunity for closing statements. If you are representing yourself, similar rules apply to the opening statement. It is an opportunity to highlight to the court how the evidence that has been heard supports the case which you had set out at the start of the hearing. Keep it to the point and concise.
Tips for giving evidence
If you remember these tips while you give evidence you should give your best impression to the court.
- Re-read any written statements you have filed to refresh your memory. Also familiarise yourself with the rest of the evidence before the court. Concentrate on the issues that are in dispute and the weak areas of your case, as these are the areas that you are most likely to be questioned about.
- It may seem obvious but the most important thing is to listen to the question and make sure you answer the question that is asked. Keep your answers to the point. Don’t be tempted to elaborate or find yourself going off at a tangent, it may not be relevant and could even be damaging to your case. If you don’t understand a question, say so.
- Take your time. Speak slowly and clearly, the lawyers and Judge or Magistrate will be taking notes as you go. Make sure you fully understand the question and think about your answer before you start talking.
- Try not to be defensive. This is easier said than done when the other party’s lawyer may be intentionally trying to trip you up. You don’t want to give the impression you have something to hide and defensiveness can sometimes be misinterpreted as aggression. Your evidence will be more persuasive if you appear to be relaxed and open with the court.
- Keep your cool. Stay polite and calm. If you lose your temper in the witness box the Judge or Magistrate may be wondering what you are like behind closed doors.
- Direct your answers to the Judge or Magistrates. They will be assessing your answers to inform their final decision. It may also be easier to give a calm and reasoned answer to them than the lawyer who is intentionally asking you tricky questions.
- You may find the experience stressful and/or upsetting. If you need a break, let the Judge or Magistrates know. Also speak up if you need a comfort break, sometimes cross-examination can go on for some time and will be difficult to concentrate and give your best evidence if you are distracted by needing the toilet. There should be water in the witness box, but if you need some, ask.
I hope that this assists?