How To Give Evidence About an Assault
Security is a dangerous field. While this site has proposed a number of steps that could be taken to ease the threats faced by Britain’s security workforce, the underlying potential for danger will always remain extant. In effect, guarding against potential threats to others, as well as to yourself, is the nature of the job.
In addition to instances of violent assault, you may also witness a number of other crimes, from minor torts such as trespassing, to more serious fare such as theft or vandalism. In some of the more egregious cases, you may be called to court as a witness and asked to give evidence, usually involving an account of what you saw, as well as a thorough cross-examination of that account.
In this feature, we’ll be taking a look at what to do (and what not to do) in a courtroom. We will examine how to properly conduct yourself and how to present your evidence clearly, succinctly and (most importantly of all) honestly.
All rise, this article is now in session….
What Exactly is Evidence?
The word ‘evidence’ comes to us from Old French by way of the late Latin word ‘evidencia’, which literally means ‘proof’. Earlier versions of this word had a more distinct meaning, mainly surrounding clarity when presenting a fact.
The word ‘evidence’ was first used in a legal sense from around 1500, where it supplanted the word ‘witness’ (today more commonly used to describe a person who gives evidence than the evidence itself).
So, in modern terms, evidence is simply proof that the story being put forth is not a mistake or some form of fabrication.
Under UK law, evidence of a crime must be considered relevant to the case, as well as admissible in court. If it fails to fit either of these criteria, it cannot be presented before a judge.
Evidence is considered ‘relevant’ only if it directly helps to either prove or disprove the case being made at the time. Evidence is considered to be admissible only if it relates to the facts of the case and was obtained via legal and ethical means.
Another consideration is the ‘weight’ of the evidence presented. This is a legal term that essentially describes how reliable the evidence will be in the eyes of the court. For example, clear video evidence of a crime being committed that corroborates eyewitness accounts will carry a lot of weight – and will likely lead to a conviction.
Conversely, blurry video wherein the culprit cannot be easily identified will carry much less weight, especially if the defendant has a good alibi that places them elsewhere when the incident occurred.
Why is Evidence Important?
Without evidence, anyone can simply claim anything about anybody, and justice cannot be done.
For an example of ‘justice’ being served without proper evidence of a crime being committed, take a look into the career of ‘Witchfinder General’, Matthew Hopkins (1620 – 1647) or the infamous Salem Witch Trials that took place in America during the 1690’s.
The ‘evidence’ presented in these cases was spurious at best and completely fabricated at worst. Innocent people died horribly as a result of superstition, hearsay and innuendo, partially because clear procedures and definitions for what does and does not constitute viable evidence either didn’t exist or were overlooked.
A great historical example of how evidence gathering ought to work, however, comes to us from 13th century China. Song Ci was a doctor, scientist and writer who was called in to a farming village to investigate a murder. By examining the victim’s body, Song deduced that the murder weapon had been a scythe. However, almost every man in this particular village owned a scythe. No man’s scythe was missing, and each scythe was clean, with no visible traces of blood detectable by the naked eye.
To determine the killer’s identity, Song left every scythe in the village outside overnight. Flies, he reasoned, would be uninterested in a metal farming implement, unless, of course, it contained trace amounts of blood or viscera.
True enough, multiple flies soon congregated around the murder weapon, attracted by the unseen traces of blood. This provided the evidence needed to determine the killer’s true identity.
Evidence, then, is vital for providing proof of an accusation or claim made against someone. We’ve all seen those TV shows and movies wherein the bad guy gets away with an obvious crime due to lack of evidence, smirking all the while and infuriating our heroes. However, if a legal system fails to privilege reliable, hard evidence, wild theories and baseless assumptions could become tantamount to facts and true justice would become little more than a roll of the dice.
Laws Surrounding Evidence
In the UK, there are 3 key laws that principally deal with the gathering, handling and presentation of evidence. These are:
The Civil Evidence Act 1968 discussed ‘hearsay’ evidence, as well as further defining what was and was not to be considered admissible as evidence. It also defined the nature of ‘privileged’ (i.e., confidential) information, as well as the situations in which the rules of privilege did or did not apply.
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (sometimes referred to as ‘PACE’) sought to better balance the rights of the individual with the powers of the police. It essentially defined police powers (such as under which circumstances searching an individual or their home is acceptable). Crucially, it also asserted that only evidence gathered by police strictly adhering to this legislation would be deemed admissible.
For its part, the Civil Evidence Act 1995 largely dealt with the credibility of witnesses, as well as further expanding the definition of hearsay.
As you can see, the law is an ever-evolving practice, especially in the UK, where laws have been formally drafted for almost a thousand years. In fact, the ‘common laws’ first drafted by King Henry II (1133 – 1189) are still the foundations of the British legal system we use today. This longevity may explain the law’s various ‘peculiarities’, some of which are truly bizarre.
Different Forms of Evidence
British law defines several different types of evidence. Some of these are:
Direct – Direct evidence is evidence that connects the accused directly to the crime. This could include eyewitness testimony of an event witnessed first-hand by the person giving the evidence.
Circumstantial – Sometimes called ‘presumptive’ or ‘indirect’ evidence, circumstantial evidence is evidence that is not conclusive by itself but can be used to prove other assertions relating to the case. It is not direct evidence, because the witness is not alleging to have seen the crime take place, but it definitely helps to prove a person’s innocence or guilt.
Opinion – This is a type of evidence usually supplied by an expert witness, for example a specialist unrelated to the case who has been brought in specifically for their expert opinion. Opinion is not, unless formally requested, desirable coming from a witness. In such cases, it is better to let the evidence speak for itself.
Hearsay – The term ‘hearsay’ refers mainly to things that the witness may have heard about a person or incident but does not actually know for a fact to be true (even if they believe it to be true, they cannot say with actual certainty that it is). Hearsay is not, in most cases, admissible in court, as it cannot really be examined or tested. For example, if all you can say is that somebody else told you that something happened, this account is all you can offer and that isn’t much use in a court of law.
Oral – Oral evidence simply refers to a verbal account from a witness.
Corroborating – Corroborating evidence is evidence given from a separate source that backs up the evidence already being presented. It must be relevant to the facts of the case in order to be admissible.
Documentary – In the case of documentary evidence, the evidence is taken from a document (i.e., a DS’ logbook, or a letter from the accused admitting to the crime). The original document is considered to be primary evidence, while photocopies, scans or other copies are considered as secondary evidence.
Forensic – Forensic evidence is evidence obtained by scientific methods, such as fingerprinting, DNA analysis and blood testing. You will not be asked to present such evidence, though your account may be used to back-up some forensic findings.
Real – Both video and forensic evidence are examples of ‘real’ evidence. Essentially, real evidence is produced before the court as an exhibit and will take the form of a tangible item linking the accused to the crime (for example, a blood-stained knife with the accused’s fingerprints on it, or drugs confiscated from the accused by a DS).
Unfair – Unfair evidence is evidence that does not directly relate to the case in question. For example, if the accused has a criminal record for committing a crime prior to the one they are presently accused of, this should not be revealed to the court, lest it prejudice the jury against them. The same goes for accusations against the character of the accused. Such evidence would be considered inadmissible.
The Dangers of Perjury
Perjury means lying under oath – and it is a serious offence. Under the terms of the Perjury Act 1911, any person who has been legally sworn in as a witness is not permitted to impart any information that they know to be untrue. At crown court, perjury carries with it a maximum sentence of up to 7 years in prison.
Additionally, any person who helps another person to commit perjury, or threatens, coerces, advises or otherwise encourages a witness to perjure themselves will also face prosecution and will be tried as if they were the principal offender.
7 years in prison may seem like an overreaction for a crime as simple as lying, but a large part of all legal traditions and practices hinge on people speaking truthfully. Additionally, if an innocent person is punished for a crime because of a lying witness, this would represent a serious miscarriage of justice.
A famous example of perjury occurred during the 1994 – 1995 O.J Simpson murder trial. LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman was asked if he regularly used ethnic slurs and racial epithets to describe African Americans. The detective vehemently denied these claims on the stand, but Simpson’s defence team were able to locate multiple witnesses, as well as procure audio evidence that demonstrated that he was lying. In the end, Fuhrman was convicted of perjury, lost his job with the LAPD, received a sentence of 3 years’ probation and was fined.
For a British example, Conservative politician Jeffrey Archer committed perjury after it came out that he had engaged in a paid vacation with a prostitute in the 1980’s. He sued the newspaper that published the claims, receiving £500,000 in damages in 1987. However, in 2001, the story broke that he had lied during the initial trial and Archer went to prison for two years for perjury.
In short, you must never even consider committing perjury under any circumstances. If your falsehoods are discovered, the penalties could be severe indeed.
How to Give Evidence Before a Court
If you find yourself in the position of having to give evidence in court, there are a few things to always remember.
The first thing is to be prepared. This means knowing your story through-and-through. If you are easily caught out by technical questions (for example, “what time was it when you first saw the incident occur? How long did it take you to get there?”), your credibility as a witness could be called into question. To avoid this, be absolutely sure of your account, as much as you possibly can be.
You must also carefully read and re-read your witness statement. This must be delivered as clearly and confidently as possible. If you appear to be simply reading from a script, or you find yourself backtracking, adding verbal asides or stumbling over your words, your credibility could be damaged.
You must ensure that your evidence reflects your own words and manner of speaking. This means that your witness statement must come from you and not anybody else.
Familiarise yourself with the facts of the case, as well as trial procedures and the people involved in the case.
Work closely with the lawyer, ask any questions you may have and follow their instructions to the letter. You may ask them to engage in a mock cross-examination, in order to better prepare you for court.
It is important to appear presentable. Wear smart, formal clothing (e.g., a suit or other formal attire) and conduct yourself politely and respectfully at all times.
The basic procedure for giving evidence in a British court is as follows. Each party will call their witnesses to the stand. The witnesses are then sworn in, promising to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.
Traditionally, taking this oath involves the witness placing their right hand over a copy of the Bible. Adherents to other faiths may use different texts (witnesses of the Muslim faith, for example, can use a Koran), while atheists are simply instructed to “solemnly, sincerely and truly affirm” that their statements are accurate and correct to the best of their knowledge. In 2013, a movement to remove the Bible from court proceedings was rejected by magistrates, so the Bible is still widely used in British courts.
The claimant’s (the party responsible for bringing the case to court) witnesses always go first. They will be asked to confirm their identity by supplying their name and address, as well as to once again promise the court that their statements are truthful. The evidence will then be admitted.
Following this, the counsel for the defence will cross-examine the witness, which basically involves a line of questioning aimed at questioning the evidence presented. If this questioning becomes too personal or unpleasant, the claimant’s counsel can object to this on various grounds. Whether this objection is ‘sustained’ or ‘overruled’ is at the sole discretion of the judge.
Once the claimant’s witnesses have all been called, the defendant’s witnesses will be called and the process will be basically the same as before, albeit with the reversal of roles between claimant and defendant.
In some cases, witnesses may be re-examined. In most cases, however, once evidence is given and the witness has been cross-examined, their role in the proceedings is over.
Appearing before a court can be nerve-wracking and difficult. However, it’s important to remember that as long as you answer every question honestly and your statements are truthful and correct, you’ll have nothing at all to worry about.