Membership information 1800 509 441
Medicolegal advice +44 113 241 0200

Doctors in the dock

Dr Paul Heslin, a GP based in Dublin, describes how it feels to be in the witness box

A GP colleague friend asked me about appearing in court. She felt nervous and apprehensive (I could relate to that!). She was flushed in appearance and on edge, as the court date was in the afternoon. She said that she just did not like public speaking; never had.

We were crossing paths, as you do in a busy surgery, so I could only think of one piece of advice: “When I was last in court, as a witness, and when the officer was asking me to put my hand on the bible and say “repeat after me ...” I decided to use this opportunity to concentrate on self-care. I used the time to slow my breathing, and to slow my rate of speech, as I repeated after him, more slowly than was necessary. I concentrated on being in the moment and in my body. I relaxed every part of my body that was tense and I prepared for the next stage.”

I know that after years of being a member of Toastmasters International, speaking in public is a frightening experience for many, many people. This fear makes us speak faster but think we are speaking normally. This fear can raise our voice tone and make us vigilant and on guard for any sense of attack, whether real or imagined. This higher pitched voice and faster speech can change our credibility in a courtroom.
In the court room, it is our challenge to slow our breathing and calm our bodies

Of course, this is exactly like a panic attack. It has all the physiology of fear: fight or flight. We tell our patients about this every day. But today, in the court room, it is our challenge, to slow our breathing and calm our bodies. I felt more confident that day after calming myself at the very beginning of the proceedings and I would recommend this strategy to anyone in the difficult position of being cross-examined.

Some weeks afterwards, I met my friend again. She said she had been called to court but was not needed until the next day. When she reappeared the next morning, they said that they had settled the case and she was not needed. This was both a great relief to her, but also a frustration when she considered all the work she had put into reviewing the records, preparing herself and getting locum cover for her practice. I myself made the mistake of turning up a day early on a week-long case so I could get a sense of the court room and familiarise myself with the situation.

I often advise colleagues to go to the empty courtroom some weeks before their case. The court attendants are usually very helpful, especially in the EAT (Employment Appeals Tribunal). In my case, however, “my” team called me up a day earlier than I expected as a witness, because they saw me there, despite my protestations that I was leaving the proceedings as I was on call for an after-hours service. I pleaded this with the judge as well but to no avail. This really put me off and distracted me as I was aware of my responsibility to other patients. Maybe I should have refused a second time.

The court room is about the truth, even if there are lots of personalities in the court. So, if you feel that the meaning of your evidence is being contorted, it is reasonable to explain this to the judge and then let the judge decide. This occurred to me when I was asked the same question five times. Each time, the question was laden with an extra sauce of vocal tonal insinuation. We know that the meaning of communication is altered by body language, intonation and more. The irony is that this case was about workplace bullying.

f you feel that the meaning of your evidence is being contorted, it is reasonable to explain this to the judge and then let the judge decide

You will get “gently” pressured in the courtroom and you will be undermined in order to undermine your credibility and your evidence. So do not be upset after your appearance when you feel a mixture of mild confusion and anger. If you feel that you have been gently (or not so gently) bullied, that is probably because you have been. The courts are not gentle supportive environments.

Ultimately, your biggest strength is separating the facts from your opinion and giving both, clearly and with dignity. Your truth should be directed to the judge. Do not be sidetracked by the cross-examination. Take time to consider your answer. In my final medical oral exam, I did not know the answer but ten minutes later I did, so I came back to them with my confident answer at that point. Do the same in court. It is your truth. Have a big cup of coffee afterwards. You deserve it.

  • For more information see MPS’s factsheets on Giving Evidence and Inquests
  • The MPS General Practice Conference: Spotlight on Risk, on Thursday 12 September in Dublin features a similar-themed live role-play: “Doctors in the Dock, What happens when a doctor falls foul of the law?”
Leave a comment