MAASTRICHT. How effective and efficient are examinations of witnesses in court? This was the question to which law students Hannah Jans, Rianne Mertens, Frank Hoogers and Vera Poels tried to find an answer. They attended more than a hundred examinations.
What they wanted most for their Marble project, was something to do with the court. “After all, that is where we will end up,” said Mertens. The subject had to be connected to the law of evidence in civil cases. “That was the theme of a conference in Croatia, which our supervisor Fokke Fernhout attends every year and where we presented our work. While brainstorming, we came up with the examination of witnesses.”
The students drew up an ‘observation form’ to assess the examinations. Does the judge ask open or yes/no questions? How long does the examination take? How many questions are asked? Then they visited cases throughout the country. From quarrels among neighbours about a fence being too high to conflicts about who gets what after a divorce.
“Most of the examinations were very effective. The judges did not ask any direct questions, but came by their information in a roundabout way. This is how they check if someone is telling the truth,” says Mertens. Although at times they were a little too efficient. “Before witnesses can make statements, they must make a pledge (secular) or take an oath (religious),” says Jans. “The difference between those two was often not explained. Neither were witnesses told what would happen if they did not tell the truth. That should be done in fact.”
The students looked into the differences between male and female judges, but there appeared to be hardly any. “It also made very little difference if the witness was of the same sex as the judge,” said Mertens. “Women did take more time with their statements, but this could be a coincidence: maybe these cases were more complicated.”
Another thing the students noticed, even though it was not directly related to the project, was how difficult it was to get into a courtroom. “These cases are all open to the public, but sometimes they would simply say on the telephone that it was not,” said Jans. Occasionally they travelled in vain, which was a drag if the case was halfway across the country. “Then the examination had been cancelled, but nobody had adapted the agenda.” But apart from them, there were seldom any other members of the public in the courtroom. “If you are an outsider, it is difficult to follow,” said Mertens. “Everyone connected to the case knows what it is about, so the judge is not going to explain things. This makes it less interesting for visitors.”