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Trial by Fire: When You're the Witness
As much as you might wish the witness seat would open up and swallow you, you will need to deal with the opposing attorney the best you can. (If your spouse is pro se and questions you himself, his lack of experience could be advantageous to your case.) What can you do when you're looking at a lawyer, but you feel as if you're peering into the mouth of a shark? Some pointers:
- Take your time before answering questions. Think before you speak, and give your lawyer time to object to the question. (This is a good time to have legal counsel by your side.)
- Do not let the lawyer get you riled. Control your emotions.
- If you feel faint, tell the judge you need a break.
- If there's water nearby, pour yourself a cup or ask the judge for some. Do not be shy about making these requests. Just be sure not to interrupt anyone else, unless it's an emergency.
- Keep shaky hands inside the witness box so the lawyer won't know what effect he's having on you.
- Remember to look at the judge and, if appropriate, at your lawyer, in addition to the lawyer who is questioning you.
- Don't be afraid to cry, if your emotions have clearly reached the boiling point. At this time, the judge will probably call a recess, and you'll have a chance to pull yourself together. If you're a man, you probably think you'd never do that, but there will be no adverse consequences should you become emotional during the trial.
Traps You Can Avoid
Nothing irritates a court more than a manipulative litigant. Keep this in mind when the tears are about to flow.
Although the issues being decided at your trial are extremely important and will affect you profoundly, this is not a criminal trial. No one is going to be sentenced to jail (unless this is a trial for contempt of court—a deliberate failure to make support payments, for example). Matrimonial judges might get annoyed at your bad behavior or obvious lies, but they are used to the deep feelings divorcing spouses have and are generally sympathetic and patient.
A trial should be about the pursuit of truth and justice, not about who used what gimmick to “win.” However, you can do things to help your case:
- Visit the courthouse before the day of trial, when a trial is in progress, if possible. You'll feel better knowing you're not stepping into uncharted territory.
- Tell your lawyer everything. If you have a secret bank account and you don't want to tell your lawyer (you're afraid she'll charge you more), keep in mind that your spouse might already know. It will be much worse for you if your lawyer hears about it for the first time while you're on the witness stand being cross-examined.
- Dress appropriately. Our picks: white, Peter Pan-collared blouse with a wide skirt for women; suit and tie for men. If you're a man claiming poverty, a sports jacket (or even a sweater, if you're claiming extreme poverty) with slacks and a business shirt can work as well.
- Leave expensive jewelry at home, unless you're trying to prove that your extravagant marital lifestyle included such trinkets.
- Be sure to bring all the documents needed. Pack them the night before. Bring paper, or ask your lawyer to bring an extra legal pad for you to take or write notes.
- Pause before answering any questions. Give yourself time to think and give your lawyer time to object.
- If you don't understand a question, tell the lawyer you do not understand and ask that it be repeated.
- If your trial involves a jury, look at the jurors when you answer questions, but do not stare at any one juror. You don't want to make any juror feel uncomfortable.
- Be aware that when your side is presenting its case, you're probably going to feel great during the direct examination by your lawyer and maybe even okay during the cross-examination, if your witness can hold his or her own. During the presentation of your spouse's case, you'll probably feel miserable.
- During the trial, get plenty of rest at night.
- When the trial is over, try to put it out of your mind, at least until there is a decision (if you didn't get one at the end of the trial). You might keep thinking about what you should have said differently. Try to forget it.