Working as a Witness
Posted: Sun, 13 November 2005 | permalink | No comments
(A continuation of my reminiscences as an expert witness.)
In an earlier post, I made brief mention of the unpleasant realities of being a witness in a trial. More details, ahoy!
Most witnesses aren't allowed in the courtroom except when they're giving evidence (to avoid bias) and have to sit out in the hallway. Bring a fat book, because you could be out there for days. I don't think much compensation is provided for your time, either. And, as a final indignity, the lawyers might not even end up calling you to the stand. For example, one of the prosecution witnesses in the case I was involved with was called to appear, and sat outside the court for eight (count them, 8!) days, before being told he wasn't needed after all, and he could go home. I don't know about you, but if that had been me, I would have ended up in the dock myself on a charge of mayhem. Another witness, after having been through her time on the stand, made a comment along the lines of "I'm going to make sure I'm overseas next time".
Expert witnesses (as I was) get treated a little better. We can watch most of the bantering in court, while we evaluate the technical evidence presented by other witnesses (experts and non-experts alike), and at least the pay is sensible. As an occupation, "expert witness" would be OK. The hours are pretty sweet, the pay is good, and the conditions quite reasonable. For a regular geek like myself, though, it was fairly close to agony by the end of it. I've had three big projects on indefinite hold while I was at court, unable to give my clients a firm date when I could resume work for them. They were all understanding, bless them, but I could have lost out badly. The complete uncertainty as to what is going to happen and when means that you basically end up camping out at the courthouse for umpteen days. At least, in my case, I was being paid regular consulting rates for my camping.
When I say uncertainty, I really do mean it. I was originally told I'd be needed for a day or two -- a quick look at what the other witnesses were saying, maybe jump in the box for a bit, and then I'm off. Then the first witness in the stand was there for nearly three days (along with a day or two of procedural stuff in amongst it so I had been there a week before he was finished). Then the defence was going to make a motion for dismissal, because the prosecution were being pummeled by his honour for their lack of case preparation, so I would have been out of there. That never materialised. Then more procedural faffage, another witness that ended up in the box for about 4 days -- each day of which I thought was the last -- and then it was my turn, which lasted nearly four days. At no stage did I have any indication of when it was going to be over, either, so I couldn't say with any sort of certainty when I could start helping anyone else out.
While the legal system has a vital part to play, I'm wondering if something could be done to improve the running of trials to reduce this sort of pummeling of witnesses.
On the sweet hours: court convenes each morning at 10am. There's usually half and hour to an hour of transcription correction (although I get the impression that isn't a standard thing) then witnesses start going through. There's a half hour morning tea break around 11 or 11:30, and then an hour lunch at 1pm. Usually there will also be an afternoon break of 10 to 15 minutes, before court adjourns for the day at 4pm (if not a bit earlier).
I presume that the reason for the short days is that it's mentally very tiring, and there's lots of prep work for the lawyers mornings and afternoons, but it's a lot better life when you've got none of that to do. Unfortunately, the day isn't short enough that I could get a lot of other work done, so it's effectively just a short-paid day.
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