If you are representing yourself in court, you should be ready to tell your side of the story. You have a right to call witnesses who can help you prove that you are telling the truth. There are rules you must follow when you go to court about how to question your witness (See Representing Yourself in Court: How to Question Your Witness) and how to question the witnesses of the other party. This article will help you understand these rules.
No matter how prepared you are, there is often no way to predict what your adversary (the person you are suing or who is suing you) will say. Your adversary may testify about his or her side of the story. Your adversary may bring other witnesses to testify. You may not be able to predict what the other witnesses will say either.
In court, you are also allowed to cross-examine witnesses who testify for your adversary (ask questions of any witnesses testifying for your adversary). Here are some important rules for cross-examining witnesses.
- Think about why each witness is in court to testify.
- Think about what each witness has to say.
- If you know that a witness has information that may help your side of the case, ask the witness about it.
- Listen carefully to everything the witness says during direct examination.
- Have a pad and pen with you and write down anything the witness says that does not makes sense.
- When you cross-examine the witness, ask the witness about the statements that did not make sense.
- When you cross-examine a witness, ask the witness questions about any lies or inconsistent statements that the witness has made. This will show the judge or jury the witness is not a truthful person, has a reason to lie in this situation, or has previously said something completely different from what you heard the witness say under oath.
What types of questions can I ask during cross-examination?
Ask Leading Questions
The types of questions you are allowed to ask the other side’s witnesses are different than the types of questions you may ask your own witnesses when they are testifying. When you are questioning your adversary’s witness, you are allowed to ask leading questions. A leading question is a question that suggests the answer as part of the question. When you ask leading questions, the witness usually only has to answer with a yes or a no.
Here are some examples of leading questions:
- You are currently the girlfriend of the defendant, aren’t you?
- You said earlier that you drive a Jeep Wrangler, but isn’t it true that you actually drive a Honda Civic?
- You have been good friends with the defendant for over 20 years, haven’t you?
- It was rainy and foggy out the day you observed the accident, wasn’t it?
You may ask the witness about topics that will help make the judge or jury believe that the witness has a reason not to tell the truth, has another motive for testifying, or does not know as much as they claim to know. Trying to make the other side’s witness seem like a liar will not help you unless you can prove that the witness is actually lying. If you are just trying to make a witness look bad, your own trustworthiness may be in jeopardy.
You should not ask too many open-ended questions (questions that allow a witness to give a more detailed answer). Try to ask open-ended questions only when you know what the witness’s answer will be to the question. Open-ended questions usually begin with words such as Who, What, Where, When, Why, or How, etc. Open-ended questions allow a witness to explain an answer. For this reason, you should only rarely ask this type of question during cross-examination.
It is important to remember that you do not need to ask the witness any questions at all if you do not want to, do not have any questions, or are worried that anything the witness says will only hurt your side more.
Avoid asking questions about unrelated topics
Some important rules for cross-examination are:
- Only ask questions about subjects related to the case. Asking questions about unrelated topics will waste the court’s time. Information about unrelated topics is not relevant.
- Ask questions only about the witness's answers to questions asked during direct examination.
Impeaching evidence will be considered by the judge whether or not it was mentioned during the witness’s direct testimony. Impeaching evidence is a type of evidence that will show that a witness is lying or has a reason to lie. You may ask questions or present evidence that shows the witness is lying. For example, if you have a picture of a witness at a barbeque during a time the witness says he was at work, you may present that evidence to help prove the witness is not truthful.
Goals of Cross-Examination
Ask questions to get the information that is most important to your case and listen carefully
Do not ask too many questions. Avoid confusing or boring the judge or jury. Ask the most helpful questions at the beginning and at the end of the questioning so that the judge or jury remembers the strong points.
Only ask questions when you know the answers. You should not ask the witness a question if you have no idea how he or she will answer it. Often, a witness for the other side might consider you to be an opponent, or the witness may feel that you are trying to trick him or her with questions. Either way, that witness will probably not be trying to help your side of the case.
Listen carefully to what the witness says. This way, you may ask helpful follow-up questions or realize when it is time to stop asking questions. Stop asking questions when you’ve gotten the information you need! Even if you realize you have not gotten all of the information you wanted but you have come as close as you can, it is sometimes a good idea to stop before the witness has the opportunity to say something that could hurt your case.
Another important reason for listening carefully to what the other side’s witness is saying is because you may hear the witness state facts that support your side of the story. Some facts that the witness remembers may be helpful to you or show that you are giving the correct version of events. Therefore, you should write down anything the witness says that is useful and ask questions in order to get out the same information. Listening carefully to what the other side’s witness says when your opponent is questioning him or her may be very helpful to your own case!
Stay in charge!
Project a confident, take-charge attitude. Appearing confident gives the appearance that you know what’s going on and that your case is the better one. Using a sarcastic tone or appearing to be angry at the witness will not help your case.
Be a good actor and don’t let your emotions show. Keep a poker face, even when you hear an answer that you know is not good for your case. This way, the judge or jury will not see the answer as one that weakens your case. If you seem upset by the answer, the judge or jury will be drawn to the weaknesses in your case.
Important Points to Remember
- Listen carefully to the witness’s testimony.
- Ask leading questions (ones that suggest the answer within the question
- and can be answered by simply saying yes or no).
- Use helpful facts to your advantage.
- If the witness has a reason to lie, question the witness about it.
- Impeach the witness if you can present evidence or get answers from the
- witness that show the witness is lying.
- Ask questions about the most important points if you believe the answers
- will help you.
- Do not ask too many questions! Stop when you’ve gotten the answers you need.
- Stay confident and keep a poker face.
Remember, you do not have to ask any questions if you do not want to!
This article is from the December 2011 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.