In law, especially high-profile court cases, the word “deposition” is used frequently. But what is a deposition in law and how does it work? We will cover the answers to these questions, more about the process, and how to prepare for depositions in this article.
What is a Deposition: Definition
Let’s start with the basics: what does deposition mean in law? A deposition is a part of pre-trial evidence that is sometimes taken as part of the discovery process in a civil lawsuit. It can be requested during a variety of different legal proceedings, but personal injury cases are extremely common.
During the hearing, an oral statement is taken from a witness under oath outside of the courtroom. The questioners can ask the witness about their opinions surrounding the legal dispute, offering insight into what the witness knows and reducing the risk of any unwanted surprises during the trial. Any person who has relevant facts and is related to the parties involved in the case may be deposed. This could also include expert witnesses whose specialized knowledge qualifies them to present their understanding in legal proceedings.
Reasons for a Deposition
The testimonies offered by deponents give the party taking the statements better insight into facts surrounding the case. Lawmakers can use this information to their advantage to help them formulate a theory and strengthen their argument. The different benefits can be broken down into six main reasons for a deposition: (1) seeking discovery; (2) seeking admissions; (3) testing theories; (4) gaining materials for motions; (5) preserving testimony; and (6) evaluating witnesses.
The discovery phase of a case is where both parties exchange information and evidence ahead of a trial. Evidence is typically gathered in one of three ways: documents, physical evidence, and testimony. Depositions not only provide an attorney with information via testimony, but the witness’s statement may also lead to other evidence being discovered that is currently being held by the other party. It also helps to join the dots, building a better idea of how physical evidence and documents related to the case are connected
An admission is where an individual reveals some truth of a fact against themselves that can be admitted into evidence. They are a key part of the discovery process and allow lawyers to form the basis of the theory for their case. When questions are asked correctly in a deposition, the questioner can get the deponent to admit to key facts.
Admissions are also useful when filing for a judgment motion – if the testimony from the other party coincides with the theory of the lawyers from the other side, motions are more likely to be granted.
Depositions are also useful in allowing lawyers to test their theories before trial. Several angles can be assessed in the hearing to help evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each. If the witness has an answer to the question that disregards the theories, the lawyer will know not to take this angle when building their case.
Lawyers sometimes argue that testing theories is detrimental to a case as it gives the opposition insight into the perspective being targeted. However, using the deposition in this way allows attorneys to choose the best angle to present to the court at trial. It also reduces the risk of any unanticipated responses from the witness, which have the potential to destroy the client’s case.
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Gaining Materials for Motions
During a deposition hearing, the witness will either support or argue against the questioner’s theories. The undisputed facts can help to establish support for a summary judgment motion, which is where a party attempts to convince the judge of their evidence and subsequently wins the case without having to go to trial. This is still useful even if the motion fails. It can mean that the party has to call fewer witnesses to prove the uncontested points and streamlines the trial.
Under Federal Rule 27, depositions can also be used to preserve testimony. This is useful when there is a chance that the testimony will not be able to be given at a later date. Examples could include a dying witness, the witness being away on vacation, or when the witness resides outside the US and will shortly be returning home.
A deposition hearing also allows lawyers to observe and evaluate their witnesses. They can see how they are likely to respond to certain types of questions, and what makes them feel most uncomfortable. Therefore, the hearing gives the opportunity to judge the deponent and whether or not they will be a strong witness to bring to the stand.
How Does a Deposition Work?
How a deposition is conducted depends on the laws followed by each state. These laws will outline the number of depositions each party can call, how long the questioning can last, and where the session takes place.
Of the fifty US states, the majority follow the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to govern depositions. This limits the number of depositions to ten for both plaintiffs and defendants. Each session is also limited to a single day, and the questioning cannot last longer than seven hours, yet some districts will have their own rules and different limitations. With that being said, the majority of depositions will be two to three hours long. The length is dependent on how many questions the plaintiff’s attorney has to ask and the witness’s responses. In some cases, they can be as short as 15 minutes.
In terms of where the deposition takes place, it will generally be in an attorney’s office instead of the courtroom. Present in the room will be the attorney, the deponent, and a court reporter. However, all parties have the option to attend if they wish, and the witness’s lawyer is usually also present.
What is a Deposition Hearing?
A deposition hearing is the question and answer sessions where testimony is given. During the session, the attorney will ask their series of questions to the witness. The questions asked are typically more generalized than those allowed on the stand. The deponent’s attorney can offer their legal advice and object to questions asked, when appropriate. However, it is not common for them to interject and the witness is often obliged to give a response to everything as there is no judge present. Any objections can be ruled out at a later date.
What to Expect at a Deposition?
For any witness, the questions asked can be grueling and it is the job of the deponent’s attorney to help them prepare as best they can. Knowing what to expect at a deposition is key to successful preparation.
The attorney should help their client by probing and asking questions similar to those that will be asked during the hearing. They can coach the witness on how to answer questions in such a way to only give the minimum amount of information required. It is important to note that a court reporter will be present to write up the deposition testimony word for word. A transcript will then be provided at a later date. In special cases – such as the witness being unable to attend the court hearing – the deposition will also be video recorded and presented at trial. Therefore, the witness should be careful to not say anything they do not wish to be recorded.
The public profile of the witness can also be turned against them by the opposition, so check for any images, social media posts, or other online content that could negate the testimony.
To summarise, a deposition in law refers to the process in which testimony is taken from a witness to the case before trial. These statements are extremely useful to lawyers when building the theory surrounding their case and prevent unwanted surprises at trial. Formulating questions that reveal the information you’re looking for is key to a good deposition for the plaintiff’s attorney. As deponents are under oath when speaking, properly preparing the witness is key to the hearing going well for the opposition.