Sometimes children are witnesses in legal cases. Different states have different laws about the deposition testimony of minors. They are allowed to have their depositions taken in Virginia civil cases, as well as testify in court under certain circumstances. Lawyers must tread carefully with child witnesses. Here are some ways they can make the situation less frightening for the child and more informational for all parties involved.
Many children do not understand what an oath is. In Virginia, they can still have a deposition taken, but the lawyers must follow a few guidelines. The child must know the difference between the truth and a lie and demonstrate this. The easiest way is for the attorney to use an example and make sure the child knows the difference. For example, a blond lawyer may tell the child, “I have purple hair,” then ask if this is the truth or a lie. If the child understands the difference and says it is a lie, they may be used as a witness.
The minor also needs to understand that there are serious consequences to deliberately lying in an answer. Again, the best way to know if they understand is to ask what happens if they lie. Some cute and generally correct answers to this question include people going to jail, getting arrested or “getting in big trouble.”
Since testimony by nervous youngsters is sometimes considered unreliable, a lawyer asking questions should make sure he or she is as comfortable as possible. This may require things like raising the seat of a chair up higher so they can see over the tabletop. The attorneys might consider not using a table at all and just have chairs arranged in a big circle. The child should be told that they can raise their hand if they need a restroom break or a drink of water. An adult they feel safe and comfortable with should also be present in the room to calm them down if they get nervous. Having a box of tissues on hand is helpful, too, especially if the subject matter is very delicate.
Having a lot of grownups in the room can be daunting for little kids. It may help to explain who everyone is and why they are there. The lawyers are fairly easy to explain, as most children know what a lawyer is. Court reporters, however, need a special introduction. While many adults do not understand what court stenographers do, it may be simple enough to tell the child that the court reporter is typing up what people say so everyone can remember better later. If the court reporter does not mind, the child may be allowed to look at, but not touch, the machine to satisfy some curiosity.
Kids have a tendency to keep their answers very short unless they are prompted to say more. Asking questions with yes and no answers will usually yield just that; yes or no. Trying to get a description of a person or event is more challenging. Phrases like “tell me about” are helpful with getting longer answers. Asking with a soft voice will help put the witness more at ease. If the youngster does get upset, pausing for a few minutes will help. Children tend to speak softly and may need reminders to talk louder so the court reporter can hear them.