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What to know about being a witness

If you saw or you have information about a criminal or civil case, you may be called to give evidence in a trial. It can be intimidating, so be sure you know what’s involved.

Do I have to be a witness?

If you receive a subpoena — sometimes called a summons to witness— you have to be a witness. If you ignore a subpoena, the issuing lawyer can ask the judge to have you arrested and you can be charged with contempt.

If you think you have a good reason not to act as a witness, you can ask the judge to cancel the subpoena. If traveling to court would cause you great hardship, or if you believe you have no information relevant to the trial, the judge may excuse your attendance.

Contact the court listed on the subpoena to explain your situation. If the judge doesn’t cancel the subpoena, you must attend.

If you’re unable to come at the specific time indicated on your subpoena, contact the issuing lawyer and try to arrange a better time.

What should I bring?

  • Your subpoena;
  • Any documents, photographs or materials listed on the subpoena;
  • Any other evidence police or the lawyers may request;
  • Personal notes recording relevant dates, names or other information. The judge may allow you to refer to them while you testify.

You may want to bring a book or something else to keep you occupied. You may not be called at the scheduled time, or be kept waiting for other reasons.

Any documents you bring may be kept until after the verdict is rendered and still longer if there are appeals, so it could take a while to get them back. Take photocopies if you also need those materials.

What happens in the courtroom?

When it’s time for your testimony, someone will call your name and you approach the front of the courtroom. You’ll then have to promise to tell the truth, whether you’re swearing on a Bible or other religious text or, if you’re not religious, by affirming.

You’ll be asked to say your name and spell it, and possibly your address. If you don’t want to give out your address publicly, tell the judge.

The lawyer who called you into court will then ask you questions. The lawyer for the other side then cross-examines you with their own questions and the judge may have some of their own. Answer clearly and honestly. Take time to think if you need it. Once the judge excuses you, you can leave the court or stay and watch if you like.

Do I have to answer questions?

Yes. As a witness under oath, you’re legally required to answer questions posed by both sides and the judge. If you refuse to answer, the judge can find you in contempt of court, which can lead to fines and jail time.

Answer questions honestly. If you’re unsure of something or you don’t know, you can say so. But if you’re dishonest, you’re committing perjury and that can also lead to a jail sentence.

Do I get paid?

Witnesses may be eligible for travel expenses and other reasonable costs incurred. Keep your receipts and ask the lawyer who subpoenaed you if this is the case. Expert witnesses — professionals with an expert viewpoint on the situation, like a doctor or engineer, for example — are typically paid a daily allowance.

Your employer must let you leave work to testify, although they don’t have to pay you for that time unless it’s part of your contract or collective agreement.

What do I call the judge?

Different courts have different honorifics for the presiding judge and it could be confusing.

Judges in the Supreme Court of Canada and courts of appeal are known as “My Lord” or “My Lady.” Provincial court judges are called “Your Honour” and justices of the peace go by “Your Worship.”

This is a finer point of court etiquette and you won’t get in trouble for using the incorrect term. If the judge asks you a question, or you need to address them and you’re unsure which term to use, calling them “Your Honour” is a safe option.

Read more:

Being a Witness in Court: Rules and Restrictions Quebec

Going to court as a witness or victim in a criminal matter Northwest Territories