Letter: Bullies in court

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The Independent Culture
Sir: It was somewhat depressing to read (Comment, 17 May) that Cherie Blair, an intelligent and educated woman, had only just twigged something that is obvious to any non-lawyer exposed to the English court system. She is reported as saying: "Some of us in the legal profession have often assumed that giving evidence has to be an ordeal. That witnesses have to be harassed, intimidated and broken down. That if we don't bully them, we won't get at the truth. We should think again." I do hope she does.

My job as an expert witness means that I spend a large proportion of my working life in English (and occasionally Scottish) criminal courts giving evidence on speaker identification. My role is to give my expert, neutral opinion on the evidence I have examined.

All too often, the barrister appears to see it as his job to make sure that I do not give my evidence to the court. He (and it's usually he) thinks that he must bully me into saying what I do not mean and make sure that my opinion is represented to the jury in as misleading a way as possible. If he chooses to vilify me, accuse me of tampering with the evidence, trivialise my qualifications, question my honesty, he will happily do so. Quite often, the judge will let him proceed.

One of the favourite ways of discrediting witnesses is to form questions in such a way that they are forced to answer "yes" or "no" where such an answer is impossible. If the witness refuses this ambush, he is made to look evasive and unreliable. If the barrister does this "well," his colleagues will congratulate him on doing a good job. Never mind what is at stake, which is justice and truth. It is all dealt with as if it were nothing but a chaps' game.

None of this matters much for the expert witness, who becomes accustomed to dealing with the infantile, self-regarding mind games of some barristers. It is much more serious for ordinary witnesses, including children, who know they have been misrepresented over something that is very important to them or someone else. It is time barristers put their egos away and started to do their job with a little more honesty and respect for other human beings.

ELIZABETH J S McCLELLAND

Edinburgh

The writer is a forensic phonetician

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