What is a witness statement? What is it for? And what should it contain?

These are all questions which ought to be simple-enough to answer. However frequently it appears to those involved in litigation that the simple-enough answers are not always correct! Witness statements not infrequently go wildly beyond the confines of a lay witness’s actual knowledge of proceedings; opinions and hearsay are sneaked in; and witnesses sometimes appear to make sweeping legal submissions. It is not always easy to persuade a trial judge in a preliminary oral application ahead of a case to strike through offending paragraphs. One is often met with a rebuff that any offensive aspects of a witness statement will merely be judicially ignored.

A recent judgment of the Chancellor of the High Court, Sir Terence Etherton in J D Wetherspoon plc v Harris & Ors [2013] EWHC 1088 (Ch) may provide a litigator in such a situation with a useful authority, as well as affording guidance to anyone drafting witness evidence in a civil case.

In his judgment, the Chancellor exemplified the tenor of the latest round of CPR reform in advocating a back-to-basics and streamlined approach to witness statements.

The applicant (a firm which really does seem to have made a far greater than average contribution to the jurisprudence of personal injury law – now it seems, even from the Chancery Division) made the bold application to strike out the majority of a witness statement adduced by one of the defendant parties. This was upon the basis that the said witness statement contained little more than a recitation of facts based upon documents, commentary upon those documents, argument, submissions and expressions of opinion. In short, Wetherspoons thought the witness statement was improper and abusive.

Counsel for the two respondent parties submitted that as his clients were accused of dishonesty, and as neither party employed any personnel who had direct knowledge of the subject matter of the allegations of dishonesty, they were entitled to adduce evidence refusing the accusations with reference to the documents available in the case.

The Court disagreed and with reference to CPR 32.4 (and paragraph 7 of the Chancery Guide, 7th Edition), held that the witness could not give such opinion evidence orally at trial, nor could he comment factually upon events to which he had no first-hand knowledge or make submissions. Thus, it was held (whilst acknowledging that the said rules were not set in stone and in certain circumstances could be relaxed) that the witness could not give such evidence in written form as contained within the witness statement.