By: Sarah T. McCain
When your case entails contested litigation and moves towards a court hearing, you and the other party will ultimately need to present your evidence and arguments to the judge. The end result of your hearing will be the entry of orders regarding the various issues. Hearings scheduled by the court can range from as little as thirty minutes to several days. Post-decree modification hearings might take two hours, while a contested, final divorce hearing could be set for all day. In all proceedings, the time to present your testimony and arguments (your case) will generally be split equally between the two sides. As such, it’s important to make sure that your time is not only used wisely but that you also make the best impression you can while presenting your testimony to the court. Getting to the truth and assessing witness credibility is one of the primary goals of any court proceeding.
Following the testimony of both parties and any other witnesses, the court will provide its order to the parties. During this order, the judge or magistrate will generally make a finding as to the credibility of the parties and any other witnesses. This determination of credibility, or not, could have a significant impact on what the court ultimately concludes. You may be saying the right things in terms of your story or conveying relevant facts, but if the court does not find you to be credible (truthful), it may not matter. Some witnesses have built in credibility. These include, but are certainly not limited, to professionals who review the case, public persons, such as police officers, or perhaps neutral witnesses, with no vested interest in the outcome. As a lay witness with an interest in the hearing, it’s important to make sure your credibility stays intact and there are things that you can do to ensure that your credibility is not questioned.
The first and most obvious instruction Denver family law attorneys will tell you to follow when testifying is to simply tell the truth. Judges hear testimony all day long, most days of the year, and can generally pick up on the (sometimes) subtle clues that a person is not being honest. On cross examination, if the testimony is torn apart, this will make a poor impression on the court. It is best to stick to the facts.
Following that basic rule, there are other items that the court reviews which can greatly damage your credibility at hearing. First, when you are filling out documents which the court will review, such as a sworn financial statement or discovery responses, do not embellish or exaggerate the numbers. These two documents are notarized and verified, meaning that they are sworn to as to their accuracy and truthfulness. For example, if you attempt to exaggerate the numbers on your financial statement for maintenance (alimony) purposes, the other attorney will review each and every figure to determine how those figures were reached. At hearing, if you cannot explain a number which you have sworn to, this alone could raise concerns for the court as to your ability to speak credibly, even on other, unrelated subjects. The judge will also be reviewing these figures or statements during your testimony and has the ability to follow up with any questions he/she may have. If the judge is pushing you to explain a figure or statement, it is a fairly good sign that they are questioning the information that you provided. That does not mean that every number you list in your financial statement must be 100% accurate, down to the penny. It does means that if you place a figure in the financial statement which you claim to be paying, you need need to be able to back that figure up with specifics as to amount, frequency, and who you are paying. It is okay to do estimates and averages, but you need to be as accurate as possible and ready to give plausible explanations.
Second, your courtroom appearance and the manner in which you give your testimony is important. When the other side is testifying, it is best to maintain a sense of calm, even if they are perjuring themselves. Judges are aware of a lot that goes on in their courtroom and their presence. If they observe you huffing and puffing towards a witness, mouthing things to the witness, and generally acting out, it may not go over well and may impact the way in which the court sees you.
Third, it is good to be aware of how you are making statements during your testimony and to remain consistent in your affect and answers. People are often very calm when their own attorney is asking them questions, but their tone and mannerisms can change drastically when they are being questioned by the other party or their counsel. This does not make a good impression and can leave you looking like your testimony is contrived. Becoming argumentative is easy to do but rarely results in an outcome that is wanted.
Finally, and most importantly, the judge is to be respected. Never argue with the judge. You generally only get one shot to put your best foot forward with the court. Divorce attorneys know just how important it is to appear credible to the court. We also know that the court is gauge your credibility with every word coming out of your mouth. You may have the best set of facts and circumstances to relay, but if you are not deemed to be credible they just may not matter.