Witnesses learn the tricks of the barrister's trade

Colin Blackstock on a training course that prepares experts for the stand
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The Independent Online
THE EXPERT witness in the stand looks increasingly nervous as the lawyer's questioning becomes more intimidating, more aggressive, more contemptuous. Finally, the witness breaks down and cries.

This would be a disaster in a court of law. But this is not a court of law, this is the Royal College of Medicine in London, where Bond Solon Training, a branch of Bond Solon solicitors, is holding a courtroom skills training day for people who want to be or are expert witnesses.

The course brings together a small group of people - usually between six and eight - who want to learn the tricks of the barrister's trade. The aim is to provide the skills that will enable them to act as expert witnesses in court cases, and deal with techniques lawyers will use to undermine their testimony.

"Sometimes there are tears," says Mark Solon, a solicitor and qualified US attorney, "but that's because we try to make the course as real as possible. For many delegates it does feel real."

The eight delegates in this session know it is real. Each one is put on the stand and harangued, ignored and belittled by Mr Solon. One expert witness seems uneasy as his educational credentials are questioned - he is a professor at Imperial College, with four years' teaching experience at Cambridge and a clutch of fellowships in his relevant field.

Afterwards, the professor, David Limebeer, is glad to have been put under pressure in this way: "I am certain there is an immunisation process, where you get to a point when you don't take things like this personally."

That, according to Mr Solon, is the whole point of the course. "The main benefit is that the system is de-mystified," he says. "Our course is an intense experience and the witnesses will learn years' worth of experience by watching their co-delegates going through very difficult times. It also saves them learning on the job."

Mr Solon instructs the day courses, along with Catherine Bond, also a solicitor and qualified US attorney. They aim to teach as many of the barrister's different techniques as possible by using several harsh tactics in a very short space of time.

In a court, the studied indifference to responses and rifling through notes would occur over the course of a day; here it all happens in 15 minutes. One minute the witness is asked a question, the next the barrister - or Rottweiler QC, as Mr Solon occasionally likes to be known - is talking to another "barrister". It may appear as though he is conferring about the case, but it is more likely that he is talking about the weather. It is another technique to unsettle witnesses.

However, the delegates love it. It gives them an insight into what to expect and how to react. Peter Whitewood, a building consultant, says: "I thought the lawyers were just being rude when I first went to court, but this course shows you that these are just the tricks they use to unsettle you. You can't react in the same way as the lawyers, you can't play the game they play."

Mr Solon says the fact that they offer this training says something about the adversarial system in courts. Perhaps, he says, it is time for judges to stop the barracking of witnesses.

But with potential earnings of up to pounds 2,000 per day, and with many professionals making large sums of money as expert witnesses, these courses are likely to be around for some time.