Appearance in court
Although registrars are always advised about being summoned to court, it happens infrequently. Any letter from the Crown Prosecution Service or a firm of lawyers will most likely request you to comment on a written statement you made to the police.
The law, like the NHS, often keeps its customers waiting and the incident may have happened so long ago you might have even forgotten it. Once summoned, you do not have any choice but to go. The good news is you can claim expenses (see BMA guidelines).
Sometimes the law firm will ask you to choose a date or two for the appearance and it will try to fit you in. If you are on holiday it might be able to fit you in on either side. If not, you will have to cancel the holiday.
Incidents you could be expected to make statements on include assault and road traffic accidents. So think back to your casualty days if you cannot remember the incident. The only time I was summoned to court was to give evidence on the fitness of an alleged alcoholic mother to look after her children.
The reason doctors do not get called up more often is most of the time the two parties involved agree on the statement. If they do not then you will be called up to give your version of events.
It helps to have made concise, accurate notes. It may be too late for the case you are summoned for but do it from now on. Any case that might require a police statement (assault, child abuse, elder abuse, RTA) needs to have excellent notes. The usual rules apply don't write anything in the notes you would not be prepared to read out in court.
Good news is you will not need to go hunting for the notes made all those months or years ago the law firm handling the case will send you most of the relevant paperwork together with your police statement.
Once the big day arrives try to make the 'right impression' from the start. Arrive in time and look the part. Dress conservatively, comb your hair and, men,
remove your earrings. But don't expect to be shepherded in on time.
If the case is complex there might be a delay occasionally of a few days. That means you will have to attend every day and wait around until it is your turn. Sometimes the barrister may advise you of the expected delay.
Once in the witness box having sworn to tell the 'whole truth', what do you need to remember?
· Doctor's often get so nervous in court they forget they have an ace up their sleeve they know much more medicine than the lawyers.
· Remember you are there to see justice is done not to make sure the person gets 'off the hook' or 'goes down'.
· Always direct your answers to the judge or magistrate and not to the lawyers especially the cross-examining ones.
· Your attitude is important. You do not want to appear biased, angry, cocky or unprofessional in any way.
· If you feel intimidated try to remain calm and focused.
· Speak slowly and clearly.
· Patient confidentiality is usually not an issue, but if you are asked
a question you are unsure of,
ask the judge or magistrate for advice. If it is important, the court may order you to breach confidentiality.
· Try to explain medical details with as little jargon as possible.
· Interpretation as a registrar or GP you are in a position to comment on the most likely explanation, for example: 'The pattern of the bruising appears to be consistent with....' But do not over-interpret. The lawyer may pick up on this and claim you do not have the level of expertise necessary to make that conclusion. He will try to undermine your credibility. You may then need to state your past experience and qualifications which often impresses the judge and jury.
· If you feel the lawyer is trying to cloud an issue, ask the judge or magistrate if you can clarify the point. This sometimes happens if the lawyer tries to break down your statement into lots of
points that do not stand up individually even though
together though they make a convincing case.
· Know your limits admit if you do not know.
· Don't be afraid to ask for a
brief recess if you need to collect your thoughts or are feeling
like you would benefit from a break.
Remember: there is nothing more irritating to a cross-examining lawyer than a cool, calm, confident doctor on the witness stand.