Thursday, 26 February 2015

Giving evidence and answering questions in court

Witness giving evidence 
If you’re facing a court appearance as either a defendant or a witness you should expect to be asked a lot of questions.  Advocates, such as solicitors, are taught a variety of methods for questioning witnesses to enable them to undermine the evidence given by a witness for the other side.

In this post, the advocacy experts at London Drink Driving Solicitors will show you how to answer questions to give the best possible impression.

Er… I think it was kinda like this – be direct

Have you ever spoken to somebody who can’t give you a straight answer to a simple question?  I’m sure you have and you may have found their answer less convincing because of the way they spoke to you.

Consider the following two transcripts of evidence:

Q. What was the nature of your acquaintance?
A. We were, er, very close friends. Er, she was even sort of like a mother to me.
Q. What time did she leave the party?
A. If I’m not mistaken, it seems like it was, perhaps midnight.


Q. What was the nature of your acquaintance?
A. We were close friends. She was like a mother to me.
Q. What time did she leave the party?
A. It was just after midnight.

In the first example, the person answering the questions is hesitant (lots of “er’s”), in the second these are gone.  In the first set of questions and answers, the witness casts doubt on her own account by saying “she was sort of like a mother to me”, “if I’m not mistaken” and “it seems like it was, perhaps midnight”.  When you say things that make you appear to doubt your own evidence you will sound less believable.  You can see that in the second example the witness is no longer unsure and nobody can doubt she left the party just after midnight.

It should come as no surprise that two psychological experiments (O’Barr and Conley 1976; Erickson et al 1978) have shown that when confronted with the second sample jurors found that witness more believable.

Be powerful

Powerful speech is direct speech - people who omit certain characteristics sound more authoritative and thus more believable.

A linguist called Lakoff, in 1975, provided a list of characteristics that were later used by O’Barr and Conley to test how use of language affected the opinion of a jury. Some of the characteristics she highlighted as bad form were:
  1. Frequent use of phrases such as “I think”, “it seems like”, “perhaps” and so on tends to make people less confident in the accuracy of your answers;
  2. Answering with a question rather than giving a direct answer, for example, “I had one… maybe one and a half pints?” When you ask a question, it’s normal to have a higher intonation (your voice rises) at the end of the question whereas when you make a statement your voice remains flat. A rising intonation at the end of a statement makes it sound like a question and affects the weight placed on it by a jury;
  3. Repetition – if several questions have the same answer then repeat yourself, but that’s not what we mean here. By repetition we are talking about the kind of repetition that makes you sound like you are trying to convince yourself, e.g. Q. “What time did you leave the party?” A. “Midnight… er yes it was midnight”.  Repeating an answer sounds like you are not sure of the answer and so makes you seem a less reliable witness in teh eyes of the people you are trying to convince, either the jury or magistrates; and
  4. Intensifiers. Lakoff considered that words designed to intensify an answer were, in her opinion, characteristics of female speech, which she judged to be less powerful than male speech. Irrespective of whether Lakoff was correct on the gender differences we have all heard people talk who sound as though they are trying to increase the importance of something – usually themselves. In the 21st century people seem to use words like “very”, “awesome”, “amazing” etc frequently so perhaps this is less of a concern nowadays;

O’Barr and Conley described speech using the Lakoff phrases as “powerless”.  They called direct speech, which omits all of the above, as “powerful”. More importantly, they found that men and women using “powerful” speech were seen as more competent, intelligent, likeable and believable.

As a witness who, presumably, wants to be seen as truthful being judged likeable, competent and intelligent is important because you are more likely to be perceived as confident and a confident witness is a believable witness. In fact, a study by Wall (1965) found that jurors tended to believe confident eyewitnesses 80% of the time even when the witness was wrong!

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