Serving as a Witness

Some day you may be called to testify at a deposition or in a court or administrative proceeding. You may have valuable information about the case, or know the people involved, or have seen what happened, or you, yourself, may be directly involved in a trial. You may be appearing voluntarily or, in some cases, you may be served with a subpoena summoning you to appear in court. You have to obey a subpoena or suffer legal penalties.

What You Will Be Called Upon to Do

As a witness you are an essential part of the trial; justice cannot be served if the facts are not known. If you are asked to testify, you may wish to talk to the person asking for your testimony usually a lawyer in the case about what will be expected of you. Knowing what will be expected can help you organize your thoughts before testifying. Also, you may seek advice from a lawyer of your choice in preparing the testimony, and your lawyer can be present when you testify.

A deposition is a sworn statement taken outside of the court. It may or may not be used in the actual court proceedings, but it is treated as seriously as if the judge is present.

Whether you are required to appear or do so voluntarily, you should cooperate and take the job seriously. A conscientious witness who testifies forthrightly is crucial to maintaining confidence in the legal system. When you serve as a witness or a juror, you help make the system of justice work.

Your testimony will be important to a fair and impartial trial. These suggestions may help when you appear as a witness:
  • Be on time: The court must handle many cases. Your tardiness could seriously interfere with the court's schedule.
  • Be presentable: Court business is a serious matter. Dress accordingly.
  • Be attentive: Do not lounge and slump. Sit upright in the witness chair and be alert. Listen carefully to every question. If you do not understand something, ask to have it repeated as many times as necessary. Do not answer a question you do not understand. Answer directly, thoughtfully and truthfully.
  • Stay cool: Do not let the strange and formal environment of the courtroom upset your composure. Be yourself and stay as relaxed as possible.
  • Always tell the truth: Every court case is a search for the truth, for what happened. As a witness you are under oath. You are expected to tell the truth always, to the best of your knowledge. The penalties for untruthful testimony are severe.
  • Do not argue: No matter which side called you as a witness; be polite and courteous to the judge or the lawyer asking the questions. Hold your temper and never argue with the person questioning you. Arguments distract from the case and can cause you to forget the question. It could reflect on your believability and tend to lessen the importance of your testimony.
  • Do not volunteer information: Answer only the question being asked. If it cannot be answered by a simple yes or no, then answer in more detail, but stick to the question and do not go beyond it. When answering, distinguish things you know from your own experience from things you may have just heard about or which other people said. Testify only about things you personally know, unless you are asked directly about other peoples opinions and statements.
  • Do not second guess the question: As a witness, your job is to present the information for which you are asked. It is not your job to decide whether the question is a good question, or whether something else should be asked, or to imagine why a particular question is being asked.
  • Do not guess: Answer only what you know or saw yourself. Do not speculate or guess. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, just say so and wait for the next question.
  • Do not talk out of turn: Sometimes one of the lawyers may object to a question. This is the lawyer's right. The objection may be raised before you answer the question. When this happens, stop talking right away. The judge will rule on the objection, and then instruct you whether or not to answer the question.
  • Speak to the jury: If the case is being tried before a jury, direct your answers to them. If it is a case without a jury, answer so that the judge can hear and see you. Eye contact helps to establish your credibility and your relationship with the judge and jury.
  • Speak clearly: Do not mumble or be vague. The court reporter must be able to record every word. Each juror needs to hear the answers. Speak in a clear and confident tone of voice.
  • Correct any mistakes: A wrong answer should be corrected immediately. Unclear answers should be fully explained. Everything goes on the transcript. Do not be embarrassed or hesitate to correct an answer during the time you are on the witness stand. Anyone can make a mistake. If you discover after testifying that you gave incorrect information, you may contact the lawyer who asked you to testify and indicate what the proper response should have been. The lawyer will know whether to correct the record, and how to do it, if necessary.

Additional Information

Pamphlets may be purchased individually or in bulk from:
State Bar of Michigan
Membership Services Department
306 Townsend Street
Lansing, Michigan 48933-2083

You may call 800-948-1442, ext. 6326, to obtain price information.

State Bar of Michigan, copyright 1993.