Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Witness Definition:

A person who perceives an event (by seeing, hearing, smelling or other sensory perception).

Related Terms: Expert Witness, Viva Voce, Runaway Witness, Adverse Witness, Evidence, Leading Question, Examination In Chief, Trial, Testimony, Affidavit

The legal definition refers to the court-supervised recital of that sensory experience, in writing (deposition) but preferably in person and under oath (testimony).

In 1972, Justice Rawlings of the Supreme Court of Iowa wrote this in State v Gilroy:

"The term witness ... ordinarily means one who gives evidence under oath or affirmation, in person or by affidavit or deposition, in any proceeding in any court of justice, or before any officer thereof, or before any tribunal or officer created by law, or in any proceeding in regard to any matter or thing in or respecting which an oath or affirmation is or may be required or authorized by law."

See also these remarks by Chief Justice Kerwin of Canada's Supreme Court in Klien v Bell:

"A witness, in a broad sense, is one who, in the course of juridical processes, attests to matters of fact...."

witness signBut as was pointed out in 97 CJS at §1:

"The term witness in its strict legal sense, means one who gives evidence in a cause before a court of law, but has also been defined as one who has knowledge of a fact or occurrence sufficient to testify with respect to it, and an eyewitness has been defined as one who testifies to what he (or she) has seen."

In Book 4 of Justinian's Institutes, at 279, published in about 533 AD, can be found this Latin maxim:

"Testis oculatus unus plus valet quam auriti decem (one eye-witness is worth more than ten ear-witnesses).

Without the evidence of witnesses and their contribution to the law and justice system as reporters of events, the justice system would not be sustainable. Witnesses reconstruct events and tell a court what happened. Without witnesses, barring video or circumstantial evidence, a court cannot determine the facts of a controversial event.

It is out of respect for the witness that during trials, in some jurisdictions, the court and lawyers wear black robes.

At  Testifying: How To Give Evidence is more information about witnesses and their roles in the justice system.

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