Recommendations for answering questions during cross examination and maintaining a composed and respectful demeanour in the court room:
When facing cross-examination in a courtroom, it is important to maintain a composed and respectful demeanor. This can be a nerve-wracking experience, but it is crucial to remember that your conduct and responses can greatly impact the outcome of the trial.
1. Always answer truthfully
A witness of fact is not an advocate, even on cross-examination. Answering the truth lends and maintains the witness’ credibility.
2. Listen to the question
First and foremost, it is important to listen carefully to the questions being asked. Take a moment to fully understand the question before providing an answer. Avoid “guessing” what opposing counsel is asking. If you are unsure about something, do not hesitate to ask for clarification. This will demonstrate that you are thoughtful and honest and will help to avoid any misunderstandings.
3. Wait for the question
Maintain silence until a question is formulated by opposing counsel. This will avoid volunteering information.
Refrain from interrupting opposing counsel and refrain from speaking when interrupted, as it is your role as counsel to ensure that the witness is provided with the opportunity to give a full answer.
4. Do not guess
If you are asked a question that you do not know the answer to, it is important to be honest and admit that you do not know. Do not try to guess or make up an answer – this can damage your credibility and hurt your case. “I do not know” or “I do not have personal knowledge of this” are acceptable answers to questions outside the witness’ realm of personal knowledge.
5. Answer in your own words
As a cross-examination tactic, opposing counsel may attempt to make the witness agree with statements that they have not made. The witnesses must be vigilant and ensure that the question put to them, especially in the form of a statement, accurately reflects their knowledge and testimony, as the case may be.
6. Keep answers short and focused
A “yes” or “no” answer is much more effective and helps avoid the witness from volunteering information. If the answer cannot be answered this way, answering “yes, but…” or “no, but…” can serve as the introduction to a more lengthy or explanatory answer.
7. Do not quarrel with opposing counsel
It is your lawyer’s responsibility, to be the guardian of the legality of the questions being put to your witnesses. If a question has not been objected to, then you must answer the question.
8. Remain Calm
When answering questions, it is important to remain calm and avoid becoming defensive. Stick to the facts and avoid getting emotional or argumentative. It is also important to avoid getting drawn into any side conversations or debates with the opposing counsel.
9. Maintain a respectful demeanor
Remember that the judge and jury are watching your every move. It is important to maintain a respectful and professional demeanor throughout the entire trial. Some recommendations include:
a. Address the Court as “Madam Justice”, “Mr. Justice”, Your Honour.
b. Address opposing counsel as “Counsel”, “Sir” or “Madam” or Mr/Mrs./Ms…. (if individual is self-represented.
c. Dress appropriately.
Conservative business attire is proper in generally all circumstances, especially before the Court.
d. Maintain a dignified appearance.
Sit (or stand) straight and avoid fidgeting or playing with items before you, such as shuffling papers, or toying with a pen, as this is a distraction.
e. Avoid showing emotion while someone else is testifying.
This can be distracting to the witness, counsel, or the judge. In some cases, judges will call witnesses on this and may even ask the individual to leave the court until his or her turn to testify.
f. Use appropriate vocabulary.
While it may appear cliché, it’s essential to refrain from using slang or offensive language. Do not attempt to sound like a legal professional, but instead, articulate your thoughts in your own words. Using complex language should also be avoided, as simple and direct vocabulary is the most efficient way to convey a witness’s testimony.
g. Look at the Court (judge) when answering a question.
Keep in mind that the Judge/Jury is the audience listening and making the final decision, even if the questions are being asked by the lawyer.
h. Cross-examination is not a discussion or argument with opposing counsel, but rather a part of the witness’ testimony to the Court.
Look at opposing counsel while counsel is asking the question, and then turn the Court to provide a response. Doing this also allows you some time to think before speaking.
i. Speak slowly and clearly and avoid Gesturing your answers.
Nodding affirmatively or negatively is impossible to transcribe for the court reporter, whether at trial or during cross-examination on affidavit. It is also difficult for the Court to follow, as the Court is usually actively listening and taking notes at the same time, so the Court’s eyes are not always on the witness. The use of “MmmHmm” for “yes” and mumbling are also to be discouraged. Reference exhibits or documents by number, page and paragraph, in lieu of referring to exhibits as “this”, “that”, “here”, etc. Frank and clear answers lend additional credibility your testimony.
j. Do not lose your “cool”.
Remain polite, calm, composed and in control of your emotions, no matter how tired you may be, or how irritated you may have become with the many questions fired at you during cross-examination.
k. Remain discrete.
During trial, once cross-examination has begun, you cannot speak to your counsel or to the other witnesses.
In conclusion, maintaining an appropriate courtroom demeanor while in the court room and during cross-examination is crucial to the outcome of a trial. By remaining calm, honest, and respectful, you can ensure that your testimony is taken seriously and that your case is presented in the best possible light.
Written by: David A. Paul, K.C. (Senior Associate Counsel, Lawyer & Mediator)