Rules relating to your evidence
While you are giving evidence, the lawyers and the judge may object to certain things that you say. This is because there are legal rules relating to what evidence you may give.
The judge may interrupt you and ask you to stop if one of the rules of evidence is being broken.
As a witness, you may only give evidence about facts within your own personal knowledge. You cannot testify as to what somebody else saw or heard.
You may not give evidence about your opinion. You must confine your testimony to a statement of the facts, not any assumptions you have made or conclusions you have drawn from those facts. The exception to this rule is the expert witness who may give evidence as to his or her opinion.
You may not give evidence about what someone else said. This is known as the hearsay rule. For example, you may not give evidence that your mother told you she saw the accused grab your purse. In that case your mother must herself give evidence in court that she saw the accused grab your purse.
You may not give evidence about previous statements you have made. For example, you cannot give evidence that you told your friend that the accused grabbed your purse. You may only give evidence about the actual incident. There is one exception to this rule; if you are giving evidence as a victim of rape, you are allowed to introduce evidence that you made a complaint after the rape.
Your main duty as a witness is to tell the truth to the court. If you knowingly make a false statement under oath, you may have committed the crime of "perjury" and you may be prosecuted.
Right to refuse to answer a question
If you are giving evidence (either during the examination or the cross-examination), and you do not wish to answer a particular question, you must indicate to the judge that you are not prepared to answer the question and why.
There are very few circumstances where a judge will allow you to refuse to answer a question if it is relevant to the case. The right to refuse is known as a privilege:
- You have a "privilege against self-incrimination". This means that you can refuse to answer questions or hand over documents that may implicate you in criminal proceedings.
- You may have a "legal professional privilege". A legal advisor and his or her client cannot be forced to disclose communications between them. If any communication is made in contemplation of litigation (i.e., with a court case in mind), then that communication is also privileged.
- Priests are allowed to refuse to answer questions relating to what was said in the confessional. This is known as the "sacerdotal privilege". Similarly, communications with a counsellor may also be privileged.
When you have voiced your objection to answering a particular question, the judge will then decide whether or not you must answer the question. If the judge decides that you cannot rely on a "privilege", then you must answer the question. If you fail to do so, you will be in contempt of court and you may be imprisoned.
For more detailed information you should seek legal advice.