How to be an expert witness

A brilliant cross-examination is a thing of beauty

A brilliant cross-examination is a thing of beauty

Dalrymple has seen

some pretty bad expert evidence given in court, often by the most eminent men in their field.

It can be embarrassing to see their destruction in the witness box,

though a brilliant cross-examination is a thing of beauty (provided that one isn’t at the receiving end of it).

Luckily,

one recovers one’s self-esteem quickly after a mauling in which one’s evidence has been torn to shreds. When it comes to amour propre, the immune system works wonders. The counsel for the other side is a paid hack who will use any sophistry to gain his point and throw dust in the eyes of judge and jury. He has the advantage of any interrogator over any person interrogated: he has no interest at all in The Truth — unlike oneself, of course.

If Dalrymple were seeking experts, he would not choose the most eminent men in their field, for two reasons:

  1. Being so eminent, they have often grown unused to having their opinion challenged. They suffer from what a student friend of mine, now an eminent professor himself, called a hardening of the concepts. In the witness box, they can become inflexible. I have found that the best tactic when opposing counsel makes a good point is to admit it at once. This, more often than not, deflates him, as he was hoping for a foolish obduracy on the part of the witness. He will then be denied the opportunity of a thespian display of quivering indignation.
  2. They are often very busy. They have a paper to deliver in Prague next week, followed by a departmental meeting, while the deadline for a chapter of a book approaches. They are on duty for the hospital the day after tomorrow. They have only limited time to devote to the 2,000 pages of documents in the case. They read them as an eagle glides over a mountain range; but the devil is in the detail. Mastery of the papers is what makes a good, or at any rate a convincing, witness — assuming, of course, a basic competence in the matter at issue.

What is needed, says Dalrymple, is

a jobbing but competent plodder who does not consider himself too important to read 2,000 largely irrelevant pages, if only because he fears being decimated in the box. Caution, fear and a certain degree of fight (but not too much) are what make a good witness in the game of law.

Dalrymple was once having

a torrid time in the box (over a point of no importance, but counsel knew that the jury wouldn’t realise that; he was merely trying to discredit me in advance, and doing quite a good job of it).

But Dalrymple changed the atmosphere

by a mild witticism that made even the judge laugh. I think it was a turning point in the trial: counsel never fully recovered the initiative.

All the same,

one must never try to be Oscar Wilde in the box: humour is to be employed in small doses and at precisely the right time.

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