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Appearance in court as a witness

Giving evidence in court can be a nerve-wracking experience. Dr Stefan Cembrowicz advises

Giving evidence in court can be a nerve-wracking experience. Dr Stefan Cembrowicz advises

As a GP you may be asked to attend court as a medical witness. Most commonly this will be the coroner's court, magistrates' court or crown court.

Coroner's court

When the coroner holds an inquest, any member of the public – and the media – can attend. You may be asked to write a clinical report beforehand. Medical evidence is usually straightforward, though if you might be criticised or challenged contact your defence society so that you can be represented.

A professional witness presents facts. An expert witness argues their professional opinion – for example was an injury consistent with an accidental fall rather than an assault? Could a patient's epilepsy have made them unaware of the consequences of their actions?

Magistrates' court

Magistrates (JPs) deal with most criminal cases. The accused is represented by a solicitor and you will be under oath. Beforehand, your statement will be taken by a police officer.

Crown court

Crown Court deals with more serious charges, where a prison sentence may be more than six months – murder, rape, fraud, armed robbery. Bewigged barristers (defence and prosecution counsel) defend and prosecute the accused. Barristers are skilled at rapidly summing up the bones of a case; it is not unusual for defendants to meet their barrister for the first time on the morning of their hearing.

The judge (who may be surprisingly elderly) may allow you to give your evidence out of turn so that you can go back to your patients. You will describe your qualifications and experience, and how you have formed your opinion. You could be cross-questioned. If you don't know the answer to a question, admit it. Avoid responding emotionally under pressure; the barristers will jump on any irritation or exaggeration. Your job is to inform the court, not to be partisan. The old rule is: dress up , stand up, speak up and shut up.

Finally, witnesses are entitled to a professional fee scale – see the BMA website

Stefan Cembrowicz is a GP trainer in Bristol

Dress up, stand up, speak up and shut up Dress up, stand up, speak up and shut up

• Dress up: wear formal attire – you represent your profession.
• Stand up: present yourself confidently. Judges are used to putting nervous or inexperienced witnesses at their ease. Make eye contact with the judge and jury if they are present. Bow before the judge when entering and leaving.
• Speak up: bring the medical records and ask permission to refer to them. Give your evidence clearly and confidently. The judge may make notes, so pace your delivery. Address magistrates as Sir/Madam or Your Worship, a judge as Your Honour, or My Lord in High Court.
• Shut up: Keep your remarks to what you saw and found, and your professional interpretation of your findings. Do not try to be helpful by over-elaborating, or going beyond your observations and expertise.

Types of witness types of witness

• Ordinary witness
One who sees an incident take place, such as a robbery or road accident. Acting as a member of the public
• Professional witness
Someone who gives evidence from knowledge obtained in a professional capacity, and whose evidence is confined to matters of fact (such as a doctor giving evidence on treatment given to the subject of the proceedings)
• Expert witness
Someone specifically called in by one side or the other to interpret the facts using their clinical expertise (usually a consultant or other specialist)

Based on BMA definitions

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