Social Workers Giving Evidence in Court
What's Important To Us
From time to time, social workers are called to give evidence in Court and this can be a challenging experience. It is important that you are well prepared and supported, and that you understand the legal process and know what is required of you.
Although the majority of our work involves diverting families from the court system, there will be times when the level of risk to a child means that the court may be involved in deciding on matters of care and safety. In these situations you may be required to give evidence in court. This can be challenging for social workers, but good preparation and support will make the process of giving evidence go smoothly.
Preparing for Court
As soon as you are aware that you have been requested to give evidence in Court let your supervisor and site solicitor know. They will both help you prepare for Court.
Talk with your supervisor about any worries or anxieties you have about giving evidence on the stand. You might want to talk to your supervisor about having another social worker cover your work whilst you are preparing for Court and during the time you are in Court. Sometimes having your supervisor or a colleague wait with you can help. It can sometimes be a long wait outside the court.
Arrange to spend some time with the lawyer representing the Ministry at least a week before you are required to give evidence. In many Hearings this is likely to be your site solicitor. In some cases the Ministry may appoint a crown solicitor to act on its behalf. If a crown solicitor has been appointed it is likely that they will prepare your evidence. Your site solicitor may also still help. The solicitor will go over your evidence with you. Your evidence is usually based on affidavits you have filed in Court or Reports you have written. Your solicitor will help you to make sure you are confident of your facts. Be honest and frank with the solicitor. To avoid any surprises in Court advise them of any issues that may arise during the Hearing.
Your solicitor will give you advice about the type of questions you may be asked in Court. They can also help you practice responding to questions during cross-examination.
You may be asked to produce your visiting book, hand written notes or diary. Have these with you when you meet with the solicitor. As it sometimes takes a while for a defended hearing date, your diaries and visiting book may have been archived and need to be retrieved. Ask your supervisor to help you if they have been archived.
It's important to dress professionally as Court rooms are formal environments. You may be in the Court room for several hours. Some Court rooms have air-conditioning so you will need to ensure you'll be warm enough, or cool enough.
Have a pre-arranged person that you can debrief with at the end of the day or after giving evidence. You may need to 'let off steam' and your supervisor or practice leader could be available for this purpose. If you are still under oath avoid discussing the case with anyone. If you have a procedural question, you may ask your solicitor.
During the Hearing
Speak clearly and direct your answers to the judge. Answer the question as simply as possible and avoid rambling. If the question is unclear or complex, ask for clarification before giving an answer. If you don't know the answer, simply say that. If the cross-examiner cuts you off and you have not finished, politely ask the judge if you can finish your answer.
Do not give an opinion, even if asked, that you are not qualified to give. For example, avoid giving an opinion about a psychological condition, unless you are qualified as psychologist along with being employed as a social worker. If you are asked if something is 'possible', you can generally not answer with a "no" as most things are possible. However, you can qualify that with "whilst it may be possible, I believe that it is unlikely."
If the cross-examiner has an aggressive approach, try to ignore this and respond professionally. Your solicitor or the judge will intervene if they believe that the cross-examiner's behaviour is inappropriate. If the cross-examiner appears to 'misinterpret' or mistake your evidence, politely, but assertively correct them. If they appear to be delivering a speech or asking a hypothetical question you can ask for clarification about what is being asked of you.
Your evidence will be recorded. This will happen either electronically or by someone typing as people speak. It's important that you speak slowly so that it can be recorded clearly. You may be asked to slow down or pause before you respond to the cross-examiner so that they can finish typing the question.
You may find large ring binders of documents on the stand. These are called 'bundles' and you may be asked to turn to a numbered page to read a certain piece of information before responding to a question. Take your time and if you cannot find it do not become flustered. Tell the judge that you are unable to find the document. The registrar may be instructed by the judge to assist you or the cross-examiner may give you further assistance to find it.
Always pause and think before giving your response. Don't be hurried into responding in the emotion of the moment - stop and think before speaking, even if you feel provoked.
The judge will adjourn the Court for breaks during the Hearing and at the end of the day. It's important to remember not to talk to anyone other than your solicitor about the case if you are under oath when the Court is adjourned for a break or for the day.
Following the Hearing
Meet with your solicitor after the Hearing is over and ask for feedback on your preparation and presentation in Court. Ask for feedback on what went well and what you could do differently next time.
Be prepared for a range of results from the Hearing. The judge may reserve their judgement or decision and it is possible that you may not get a result for up to several months. If this is the case you will need to have a proposed plan for both safety and contact for the children during the waiting period. The judge may want to know what arrangements you are proposing. The judge's decision may be different from the outcome you were seeking. Prepare yourself for this by discussing the possibilities with your supervisor. You may be surprised at your emotional response to the judge's decision and the influence this has on your professional perception of yourself, or your professional decision-making. It's a good idea to talk over the outcome with your supervisor once the judge's decision is released.