Many custody disputes are resolved by the disputants defending themselves in court rather than hiring an attorney. The judge will allow this if it is your decision, but you should know the basic rules about questioning witnesses. An attorney has the benefit of several years in law school where he learned the proper form, but this crash course will get your prepared in a hurry.
Question a Witness in a Custody Dispute: Prepare When Possible
Before a trial, an attorney will counsel the witnesses that he or she is going to call so that the witness is prepared for any question that might arise. Although you can never prepare for what the defense might ask, you can get your questions and answers straight so that the witness is more comfortable in front of the judge. Coach the witness to look directly at you when answering questions and to keep the answers as brief and succinct as possible.
Question a Witness in a Custody Dispute: Badgering
You’ve probably heard these objections when watching a court proceeding on television or in the movies. Badgering a witness refers to slinging a slew of questions at a witness, usually questions which are rhetorical. Always ask your questions one and a time and without any anger. For example, saying, “Didn’t you hit your daughter when she was late for school? Didn’t you get angry and send her to her room without dinner? And didn’t you hit her again that night before she went to bed?”
Question a Witness in a Custody Dispute: Arguing
You are also not allowed to argue with a witness because he or she is sworn to tell the truth and arguing can be construed as attempting to sway the witness. For example, if a witness were to say that he or she has never seen your ex-husband abuse your children, you couldn’t come back with, “That’s not true, you told Jane Doe that you’d seen him hit them on a number of occasions”. The defense will object that this is argumentative, and the question will be thrown out.
Question a Witness in a Custody Dispute: Leading
Leading a witness involves asking questions that lead a witness toward a specific answer. For instance, if you were to pose your question like this: “Didn’t you arrive to baby-sit the children two weeks ago and find bruises on their arms?”, the question will be thrown out as leading. You should pose the question like this: “What happened when you arrived to baby-sit the children last week?”
Question a Witness in a Custody Dispute: Have a Plan
Your questions should never be asked in no particular order without a specific direction. Not only should the questions follow a chronological order, but they should also be directed toward a specific event, such as a crescendo in a musical piece. Always build up to your “big finish” with the most telling or shocking testimony revealed at the end. That final question and response will be what the judge or jury remembers.
Question a Witness in a Custody Dispute: Leave Emotion Out of It
Even though you are no doubt passionate about the custody of your children, the judge or jury doesn’t need to see you as an overly emotional, fragile individual. When questioning witnesses, keep your voice even and professional. Don’t look to your ex-spouse while you are questioning a witness and never get angry and yell.