The importance of a correctly drafted witness statement
The President of the Family Division recently issued updated guidance on how witness statements should be prepared for use in family courts. Sir Andrew McFarlane said clear instructions were needed as “Too many witness statements are prepared in breach of proper professional standards”.
So what makes a proper and effective witness statement, and when do you need to make one?
What is a witness statement?
A witness statement is a written document that records evidence of a witness in legal proceedings. It is signed by that person to confirm that their statement is true.
It can be used to record what a witness saw, heard or felt.
Witness statements are used across many areas of law, but in family law they are particularly important as evidence that will be submitted when dealing with a range of issues including (but not limited to) proposed child arrangements or financial settlements. Having inaccurate or poorly presented witness statements can slow proceedings down and delay the outcome.
Who can provide a witness statement?
Anyone over the age of 18, who has mental capacity and factual knowledge relevant to the matter, can provide a witness statement.
The court will ask you, or via your solicitor (if you have one), to prepare a witness statement if they believe one is needed. They will also give you a timeline within which you or your solicitor must submit the statement to the court and to the other party.
In family cases, the other people who might be required to give witness statements are usually relatives or acquaintances. For example, in a child arrangements case, if an ex-partner has concerns about the other party making an application because they have shown worrying behaviour in the past, they can ask someone who has witnessed this behaviour to provide a statement. The individual will need to have directly witnessed this behaviour and be impartial.
What do I need to include in a witness statement?
To write a witness statement that is useful and accepted by the family court, you must consider the below:
- The statement must only contain evidence from the maker of the statement.
- It must be expressed in the first person using the witness’s own words. It cannot be a second hand account of what happened.
- A statement must only include matters of fact, information and belief that are relevant to the case.
- A witness statement must not:
- Include a quote from any other document;
- Seek to argue the case;
- Take the court through the documents in the case;
- Set out a narrative derived from the documents;
- Express the opinions of the witness; or
- Use persuasive language (rhetoric).
- A witness statement must not be longer than 15 pages in length. Sometimes the court will impose a further limit on the length or extend it in extenuating circumstances.
A family solicitor will help you to put a witness statement together and check it over before it is submitted to the court.
Litigants in person
A litigant in person is an individual, company or organisation who has to go to court without legal representation from a solicitor or barrister. As they do not have a professional to check their witness statement, there is a template they can use to make it easier.
Why has my solicitor edited my witness statement?
Family cases can be emotional, and it can be difficult for witnesses to remain focused and clear on factual evidence. It is natural to want to include your feelings and personal opinions in something which involves loved ones.
Your solicitor may edit your witness statement to ensure that any emotive language is removed, it contains factual evidence and is impartial. This will ensure that it is accepted by the court and used in proceedings.
The thought of writing such an important document can also be daunting. Our family solicitors can help ensure any evidence is accurate and relevant to your case. We work with clients across the South West from our offices in Bristol and South Gloucestershire.