Communication: How to Testify in Court
Editor's note: This article was written by Sabine Hilten of EZ Legal ED.The opinions expressed here belong to Sabine Hilten.
During my first few years in the process serving business, it never occurred to me that my affidavits of service might be evidence that I would have to defend until a court subpoenaed me to testify at a hearing. I spent an hour on the stand fending off an aggressive defense attorney who insisted that, when I went to his client’s place of business, I served his client’s son and not his client. Ultimately, the judge found that service was proper and that I had personally served the defendant. Afterward, I talked to other process servers who shared their stories about testifying at hearings and trials. The following tips are the result of those conversations and are designed to help process servers preserve their professionalism in court.
Assemble Your Materials
Often, testimony is based on materials that are entered as evidence and numbered before the hearing or trial begins. But some courts’ witnesses, including process servers, may bring their documents with them and provide copies to the judge, relevant parties, and their attorneys. If you plan to bring materials, make sure you have plenty of copies. And these materials aren’t limited to affidavits of service. For example, the defense attorney who grilled me during his client’s hearing asked to see my mileage log.
Assemble Your Ensemble
If you are a casual dresser, consider that your look can appear “sloppy” on the stand. Opt for a polished, “courtroom” look. That means plain designs, neutral colors, and minimal jewelry. Minimal jewelry is important because people tend to become animated when they talk and so does their jewelry. Swinging chains and clanking bracelets are shiny, moving objects that distract jurors and annoy judges. Try on your planned testimony outfit a few days before your scheduled appearance. Does it still fit? Is it clean? Is it free of rips and tears? Are all the buttons secured and the zippers in working order? If you answer “no” to any of these questions, fix the problem or find another outfit.
Do you use an alarm clock to wake up? Remember to reset it if you need to start your court day at a different time than your normal workday. If you depend on a spouse or household member to wake you up, are they aware of the change? Knowing your electronic or human alarm clock is ready to go means one less thing to worry about the day you testify.
If you normally grab breakfast or lunch at a coffee shop or drive-through on your way to the office or appointments, will that habit accommodate your scheduled testimony? Make any changes you need to ensure you’re alert and not light-headed from hunger while on the stand.
Do you plan to drive to court? If so, make sure you have plenty of fuel. Coasting to court on fumes could leave you in a state of panic that negatively impacts your testimony. Have you anticipated any detours to your destination? Bad weather or road work can produce delays that add to travel time. Map your route the day before you’re scheduled to testify but be prepared to modify it. Acts of nature and acts of man can change travel routes in an instant.
Courthouse security can include an X-ray conveyor belt for your briefcase or purse, a walk-through X-ray machine, and possibly a quick once-over with an electronic wand. You know the drill, but what about the people in front of you? Expect delays.
Find the Courtroom
Most courts have an information officer or clerks that can confirm each day’s proceedings’ location. Verify this and get directions, such as which elevator to take to which floor. Many courts also post daily schedules on courtroom doors. Check the schedule to confirm the case in which you are testifying is listed.
It is possible that the judge calls you into the courtroom before you’re called to the stand, so note that you’re still on display. Maintain a neutral expression, do not yawn conspicuously, and don’t chew gum as it conveys a lack of respect and is against the rules in many courts.
On The Stand
There are a lot of things to keep in mind when on the stand. When you first take your seat, sit up straight and don’t fidget. When answering questions, do so verbally and not with mute nods or shakes of the head that can’t be transcribed by the court reporter. Also, speak up so everyone can hear you. If you don’t understand a question, do not answer without first requesting and receiving clarification. Once you answer, do not elaborate unless you’re asked to do so. However, do pause briefly before answering anything other than a simple question so that the attorney or party for whom you are testifying can object to the question, if necessary. From your seat, do not look at the attorney or party for whom you are testifying before answering questions. This signals to the jury, the judge, and everyone else in the courtroom that you’re not confident in your testimony.
Giving Your Testimony
Do not recite your testimony from memory. Testimony that is relayed this way sounds fake. If the court provides copies of your affidavit or other materials, do not read directly from them unless asked to do so. Reading aloud isn’t testifying. Also, avoid using “reminding” behavior while testifying, such as “it’s all in my affidavit” or “it’s like I said before.” Jurors and the judge will wonder why you don’t want to answer the question.
Addressing the Judge
If for any reason (and it better be a good one) you must speak to the judge in open court, look at the judge, say “Your Honor?” and wait until the judge gives you permission to speak. If the judge ignores you, don’t persist.
Off The Stand
Congratulations! You answered the questions asked without introducing unnecessary information. You spoke clearly and testified effectively. If you’re required to remain in the courtroom or at the courthouse after testifying, continue to maintain a neutral demeanor. Once you’re dismissed from testifying, your life is your own again. However, it’s in your best interest to remain discreet about your role until the case adjudicates.
About the Author
Sabine Hilten is a certified process server and the Qualifying Party for her own private investigation agency. She is the lead instructor and administrator at EZ Legal ED, LLC, which provides online continuing education to legal professionals in the United States.