know your rights as a witness

If you see someone commit a crime or you have information relevant for a court case, you may be called as a witness. A witness can make or break a case, evidence obtained through witness statements is considered to be one of the most important deciding factors in a case, particularly a criminal one.

Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 defines witnesses as “all persons, competent to testify unless the court considers that they are prevented from understanding the questions put to them or from giving rational answers to those questions, by tender years, extreme old age, disease, whether of body or mind, or any other cause of the same kind.” It further reads that a person shall not be competent to testify if he has been convicted by a court for perjury or giving false evidence.

What is your role as a witness?

A witness helps our legal system by giving important information (called evidence) to a court. A witness testifies, telling the court what the witness knows. Information from witnesses helps the court make the right decision. If you receive a document that says you have to be a witness in a trial, it’s because you have important information about a case. Either side in a court case can ask you to be a witness. If they do, you will receive a document called a subpoena or summons to witness. Read it carefully. It may require you to bring documents with you to court.

What can you do if you can’t appear in court as a witness during the trial?

On the subpoena or summons to witness is the name of the lawyer who is calling you to court. Ask exactly when you have to go to court, and if necessary, try to arrange a better time. If you are unable to personally attend court and you have a valid reason for it, you may seek permission to give evidence by video. When you receive notice of the court date, you have to immediately speak with the lawyer who is calling you to court to make this arrangement. It is up to the judge hearing the case to decide whether to permit a witness to give evidence by video.

What should you do if you don’t want to be a witness?

If you have a good reason not to be a witness, you can ask a judge to cancel the subpoena or summons. If the subpoena or summons is not cancelled and you do not make other arrangements with the lawyer on when to give your testimony, then you must go to court. If you don’t go, the lawyer can ask the judge to have you arrested and brought to court. A court can issue a warrant for your arrest.

What if you refuse to answer in court during a trial?

Witnesses have to testify (tell the court what they know) by answering questions from either side or the judge. If a witness refuses to answer a question, the judge can find them in contempt of court and jail them.

How to prepare for court as a witness?

Think about the event or events you saw. What happened first? What happened next? Try to remember details like dates, times, descriptions, actions, persons involved, and exact words. Keep any notes, photographs, and documents you have about the case. Bring this material with you if you speak to a lawyer before the court date, and when you go to court. The judge may let you look at your notes during the trial. If you can, before your court date go to the courthouse to watch what happens in court. Most trials are open to the public.

As a witness, you have a right to speak in a language you know well. If you find it hard to speak or understand the generally spoken language, tell the lawyer calling you as a witness or court staff ahead of time so there is enough time to arrange for an interpreter.

How should you prepare for the day of the trial?

On the day of the trial, dress neatly.

When you arrive at the courthouse, check the list of trials to find your courtroom.

If you are a witness in a criminal trial, go to the counsel’s office to tell them you are there. The subpoena will usually tell you to go to the counsel’s office 30 minutes before the trial starts.

Wait outside the courtroom until you are called to go in. Do not discuss your evidence with other witnesses. Be prepared to wait a while. A long wait can be inconvenient, but delays happen. You may want to ask a friend or relative to wait with you, or bring some reading material.

What happens in the courtroom?

Someone will call you when it is your turn to testify (give your evidence). You then go to the witness box at the front of the courtroom.

The court clerk will ask you if you swear a religious oath on the Holy Book (Quran) to affirm to tell the truth. It binds your conscience and requires you to promise to tell the truth.

Next, you will be asked to say your full name and spell your last name. Witnesses are not usually asked to state their addresses, but it can happen.

You may sit down while giving your evidence.

The lawyer who called you as a witness will be the first to question you. Then the lawyer for the other side will cross-examine you by asking more questions. The judge may also ask you questions. You have to answer the questions.

How to testify during a trial?

While testifying (giving your evidence), explain what you yourself directly observed, or what you did or said. You can show the judge any photographs that support your observations. However, do not talk about events you did not directly witness. Do not repeat the words someone else told you about events at which you were not present, unless you are asked to tell what you heard. Do not give your opinion. After you give your evidence and the court excuses you, you can leave. You can also stay in the court and listen to the case if you like. If you remain in the courtroom, be respectful and remain quiet.

Kindly note that, Pakistan has a Witness Protection Act in place to provide for protection of witnesses to enable them to give evidence in criminal proceedings without fearing for their safety or life. The provinces such as Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan also have provincial Witness Protection Acts in place, whereas Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly has just introduced a Bill along similar lines.