ONE OF THE MAJOR decisions a judge must make in a domestic violence trial is the credibility of the parties—who the judge believes more. In a case where the only available evidence is the testimony of the parties, credibility is extremely important and it can make or break your case. If you change your version of the story, avoid questions, become defensive or argumentative, the judge may not believe what you are saying.
You can avoid all of these pitfalls with preparation.
Review testimony. Remember that the judge does not know what happened. You only have one chance to tell your story to the judge, so you want to do it well. You want to do it in a way that the judge can picture exactly what happened. While you do not want to sound rehearsed, you should tell your story out loud to yourself or someone else before court, so that you know how it sounds and if it will make sense to someone who was not there. Tell the story with enough detail for the judge to understand what led up to the domestic violence incident. Tell the story in order, as if you are describing scenes of a play or television show. Avoid saying “he” and “she,” and instead use names. Do not get off track and start describing events that happened in the past before you have completely described the incident that caused you to get the current temporary restraining order.
You cannot read your testimony but you can write down bullet points to guide the order of your testimony and make sure you do not forget key points.
Tell the Truth. The most important thing you can do in order to be believable is to tell the truth. While it is not necessary to stress your own negative behavior and you should not blame yourself for the domestic violence incident, you should also not sugar coat your role in the incident. If you describe an incident that would naturally make a person upset but you tell the court you were not upset at all, that will not be believable to the court. For instance, if you found out that the other party was cheating on you, it would make sense that you were upset or angry. If you tell the court you did not care, it may not be believable.
Focus on what is important. If you want to get a final restraining order, the judge has to believe that there was an incident of domestic violence that caused you to get the temporary restraining order, so that is the most important part of your testimony. You must describe clearly what happened, and it must fit one of the 19 domestic violence crimes. See The 19 Crimes of Domestic Violence.
You may want to skip over the worst part of the story because it is upsetting for you to remember and say out loud. You need to remember, however, that the judge was not there and has to understand exactly how serious the incident was. It is normal not to want to dwell on the details of a traumatic incident, but in order to be granted a final restraining order, the judge needs to understand everything that happened.
Don’t get sidetracked by the other party’s past bad behavior in your relationship or bad parenting. The court will not enter a final restraining order against the other party for being a bad spouse or parent.
The court will also not enter a final restraining order against the other party because of domestic violence that happened in the past. The court will only consider past domestic violence if the court first finds that the current or most recent incident was domestic violence.
If you insist on telling the judge bad things about the other party and bad things the other party has done to you or others in the past, but you do not describe a current incident of domestic violence, the court will grow impatient and may think that there is no current incident.
Give complete answers. Stick to what is important, but don’t skip details that would help the judge understand what happened. For instance, if you can suggest a motive for the other party’s actions, it can be an important part of the judge’s understanding of the story.
Give direct answers to questions. When the judge or the other party questions you, listen carefully to the question. Answer the question that was asked. Do not give an answer that does not answer the question. If you refuse to answer questions, it may seem like you are trying not to tell the truth. If you do not understand a question, say that you do not understand.
Be specific, not general. Don’t use phrases like “the defendant abused/ harassed/beat/threatened me.” Tell the judge what the defendant actually did. For example, punched, slapped, told me s/he would kill me.
Think. Breathe. Use short sentences. If you find that you are rambling when you tell your story, try slowing down and using short sentences, so you can tell the judge each step in order.
Honest emotions are fine. Domestic violence trials can be very emotional. It is alright to get emotional, but if your emotions get out of hand, it may seem exaggerated and insincere to the judge. At the same time, if you don't show any emotion, the judge may not understand how upsetting the situation is to you.
Where can I get more help?
If you need help with a domestic violence issue, please contact Legal Services of New Jersey's Domestic Violence Representation Project through LSNJLAWSM, LSNJ's statewide, toll-free legal hotline. The hotline phone number is 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529). You may also apply online. The Hotline provides free legal assistance to low-income New Jersey residents in civil legal issues. If you are not eligible for assistance from Legal Services, the hotline will refer you to other possible resources.
This information last reviewed: Sep 13, 2021