Directed Questions

With a directed question the lawyer points the witness in the direction of the answer without actually supplying it. 'What colour was the car?' is a directed question. It points, or directs, the witness to a particular kind of information. The lawyer is not asking about the make, model or age of the car, nor is he or she suggesting a particular colour. (We will assume that prior evidence has established that there was a car.) The witness is in charge of selecting whichever word or words that he or she considers most appropriate. There appears to be nothing objectionable about this kind of question. We can however, compare the use of directed questions to painting by numbers. Painters are invited to fill in sections of a pre-sketched drawing with the colour prescribed for the number in the space provided. The lawyer is only asking for a part of the total picture or story to be described, to be coloured in. That does not necessarily mean that a complete picture will be provided. Rather this type of question is liable to provide a partial perspective.

The key problem with directed questions is one of selectivity. A witness may be asked about the injuries to the child's left leg, but not to the right. The witness may have important evidence to give about the child's right leg, but not be given a question to answer about it. The witness may assume, reasonably it is suggested, that the lawyer will, to continue the example, move from the left to the right leg in due course. The lawyer is in charge of which questions are asked and in which order. So the witness may not be asked for information which might, on an impartial reading of the case, be critical. Without that information only part of the picture will have been presented to the jury. Of course the witness may be assertive enough to insist on giving that evidence, although the lawyer may object. Witnesses are often told, directly and indirectly, to answer the question, and only the question. The lawyer for the other side may provide the witness with an opportunity for the whole picture to emerge but that does not necessarily happen. Directed questions provide a means whereby a partial picture is provided. And as it is provided through the witness's mouth it appears uncontroversial, which only enhances the danger.

Another feature of directed questions, which makes them more dangerous, is that they regularly appear to be gentle and helpful. Anxious and verbose witnesses may appear to be being helped, rather than controlled, by this type of question. So witnesses are liable to let down their guard and not appreciate the significance of their sequence of answers. Instead of utilising an open question, such as 'What did he look like?' which does not tell the witness where to start, what to cover in, or when to end the answer, a lawyer could begin, 'How tall was he?' or 'What colour of hair did he have?' This will avoid a witness's tendencies to wander, to be prolix or verbose. A sequence of directed questions ensures that the interaction between lawyer and witness does not lose focus. That may come as a relief to judges and courts anxious that time means money, and to jurors who may lose interest with long unfocused answers. However, competent lawyers will only ask questions which produce answers that colour in the part of the picture they want painted. In that sense a witness is a means to an end; directed questions are a useful tool.

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