Giving evidence at a court appearance

A professional witness can be compelled by a court witness summons to give evidence in court.

While it is more common to be called as a professional witness, dental professionals are sometimes required, or 'summonsed', to give evidence about the care they provided in in the criminal or civil courts, or sometimes the coroner's court.

Is the summons valid?

For the summons to be valid, it needs to be properly issued and to be accompanied by 'conduct money' (travel costs). The summons can be sent through the post.

Solicitors may occasionally send you a copy of their application for a summons to the court. This is not the same thing as a summons and does not necessarily indicate that a summons has been granted. Distinguishing between the two can be difficult, so if you are in any doubt, contact the DDU for advice.

If you are attending voluntarily, there is no need to be summonsed. Volunteering to attend may give you greater flexibility in negotiating a suitable date and time.

Where a patient has not consented for you to attend court to give evidence about them, then unless some exception to the general obligation of confidentiality applies, you should insist upon a court witness summons and inform the requesting solicitor or police officer accordingly.

Be prepared

Take the original contemporaneous paper records, or a print out of digital records to court. The court will probably allow you to consult these when you are in the witness stand.

If you are giving oral evidence in a criminal matter, the court will probably not allow you to look at any non-contemporaneous report, including reports prepared at the request of the patient's solicitor. However, you can consult a copy of the report just before entering the witness stand.

In civil cases in England and Wales, witnesses usually have access to their reports when giving evidence.

Confidentiality and disclosing information

Even when giving evidence under oath in court, you have an ethical duty to maintain patient confidentiality. You can only breach this if directed to do so by the court.

If you're asked a question in court that risks a breach of confidentiality, explain this to the coroner, presiding magistrate, judge or chairman of the tribunal. You can only disclose confidential information without the patient's consent if the presiding officer of the court directs you to do so.

Only give the court relevant information that explains your understanding and interpretation. The court is most interested in hearing first-hand evidence - that is, professional observations and understanding of a case, rather than what the patient said word-for-word.

Any evidence provided may be challenged, so be prepared to explain not only what you found, but also what you asked, and what you looked for but did not find. If you haven't made a note of this 'negative information', it is acceptable to quote from memory or to state what your 'usual' or 'normal' practice would have been in the circumstances - but be clear that you are speaking on that basis.

Stay composed

Giving evidence can be a daunting experience. However, you should strive to:

  • maintain your professional composure
  • answer only the question asked
  • keep answers concise and to the point - 'Yes' and 'No' can suffice
  • address your answers to the presiding officer, judge, tribunal or jury.

Listen carefully to the questions and think before replying. It is important to tell the court if something is beyond your level of experience or area of expertise.

This page was correct at publication on 13/08/2021. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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