Appearing as a Witness in Court

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Appearing as a witness was an expensive and frustrating experience.

Scales of justiceI had never been to court before. It was one of those things I’d been meaning to do… go and watch our much vaunted justice system in action. I would probably never have got round to it, but when I witnessed a minor car crash I offered my name and address to the driver I perceived as the victim. 18 months later I was summonsed to court. Sadly my day in court has left me feeling disgruntled.

My main objection to being a witness is that I was asked to disclose my full name and address in court in front of the dodgy looking guy (the defendant) against whom I was testifying.

Yes, the court needs to know who I am, but does the guy I’m testifying against need to know where I live?

This was a minor car accident, but disclosing my address still left me feeling really vulnerable. I was actually relieved when the defendant was cleared, even though I was sure that justice had not been done.

My second issue is that you take a financial hit for being a witness. I was summonsed to appear in Worcester County Court. This is a journey that costs about £13 by train from my home town. With the summons came a cheque for £25 to cover my “expenses and time”. What?! Seriously? You are offering me £12 to compensate for a day’s work. Appearing in court will be at my expense.

In fact, to make matters worse, the trial was moved at the last minute to Stoke-on-Trent. My costs rocketed to £45 and I had to apply in writing to have the balance paid. There was no payment at all for my loss of earnings that day. I’d had to catch a train at 6.45am. I got home 13 hours later.

My third objection to the process was the total and utter frustration I felt over the trial.

road sign for roundaboutIn brief, the case hinged on whether or not the defendant had driven recklessly on a roundabout. In my mind there was no doubt that his driving was insanely dangerous. In order to understand what happened the District Judge who was hearing the case needed to grasp the complicated three lane layout at the roundabout in question, and the starting position of all three cars involved. She didn’t. Not because she was thick, but because neither of the barristers understood it either, and the photos of the road being shown in court included a new set of traffic lights that hadn’t even been in existence at the time of the accident.

As a witness, you are only able to answer the questions you are asked. So when I tried to explain why the whole premise of the trial up to that point was invalid I was reprimanded by the Judge and told only to answer the question.

The inevitable result of the false premise was that the judge found that the defendant had not caused the accident. So I had given up my whole day for nothing. Justice wasn’t done.

Without a doubt, the main culprit on the day was the claimant’s barrister who was ill-prepared. Both the claimant and I met him for the first time about 15 mins before the trial proceeded. He was hot foot from a holiday and clearly had picked up the file for the first time that morning. He did not feel it necessary to explain how he would be arguing the case, so it was only once the trial was underway that it emerged he didn’t understand the road layout.

Neither the barrister nor the court had felt it important to brief me (or the claimant) on what was going to happen on the day and what the etiquette of the court was. The witness summons was stark; it told me a time and a place and warned of the dire consequences of not turning up. There were no links to useful websites, no information sheets attached.

The barrister had tried to put us at ease about the trial by telling us it was “just an informal hearing around a table”. It certainly didn’t feel informal, with a po-faced judge sitting behind a huge desk peremptorily telling us where we should and shouldn’t sit, and the two barristers calling her Ma’am all the time. I had no idea what the etiquette of the court was.

It was like being a child again, not knowing the rules, utterly disempowering and slightly intimidating.

It didn’t feel like we were a group of adults trying to work out what actually happened on the day. It felt like a game I wasn’t enjoying, with rules I didn’t understand.

broken front headlightMy faith in our justice system was a little bit battered and bruised by my day in court. In my view, form trumped substance at the expense of justice, and frankly, at the expense of the taxpayer. Perhaps it is important that I go back to court and see it working more effectively. I have made a mental note that if ever I need a barrister, I would sell the family silver to get one. The really big question I’m left with is this: will I ever again agree to appearing as a witness? That I don’t know. The jury is still out.

If you have had a more positive experience of appearing as a witness, please do write in the comment box below.