Posted on November 13, 2021

Narrative Answers In An Illinois Divorce Hearing or Trial

You are at an impasse with your ex. You both cannot agree on an issue so you have to let the judge decide. Finally, it is your day in court! Your ex is asked a simple question and then tells his or her entire life story on the stand. Wait! What? Is this how court is supposed to work?

No, it is not.

An Illinois divorce hearing or trial is not just two parties giving the judge a long speech…but it sure can seem that way unless you object to narrative answers.  

What Is Narrative Testimony In An Illinois Divorce Hearing Or Trial

Good attorneys ask specific questions and get answers to those questions and those questions ALONE.

“Normally, evidence is introduced by question and specific response. This method of interrogation tends to keep the testimony of the witness within the rules of evidence and affords greater opportunity for opposing counsel to object to inadmissible testimony before it is actually given.” People v. Dickman, 253 NE 2d 546 – Ill: Appellate Court, 2nd Dist. 1969

Almost all long rambling questions are the fault of the questioner not the witness. In fact, sometimes a narrative answer is a good thing. Narrative answers are literally allowing the witness to tell their story.

“To the extent that a question is not specific, or does not call for a limited, precise response, the answer of the witness may be in a narrative form. This has the advantage of naturalness and freedom from interruption, but it possesses the danger of eliciting irrelevant and inadmissible evidence before an objection can be made. The trial court has the discretion to permit the narrative form of testimony, particularly if it is best suited to the characteristics of a particular witness.” People v. Dickman, 253 NE 2d 546 – Ill: Appellate Court, 2nd Dist. 1969

“A narrative form of testimony with preliminary and concluding questions asked by the witness’s attorney does not create prejudice to [a party]. Indeed, [a party’s] testimony may well be more effective if done in narrative fashion.” People v. Lowery, 366 NE 2d 155 – Ill: Appellate Court, 3rd Dist. 1977

You may not want a witness with testimony that is harmful to you to provide a narrative answer. In such a case, you may object to the narrative response and an Illinois court may, subsequently, require the witness to truncate their answers.

An Illinois court can require a party “to limit her testimony to what was factual and relevant by means of questions from her counsel and answers responsive to those questions.” People v. Wilson, 423 NE 2d 272 – Ill: Appellate Court, 3rd Dist. 1981

Narrative answers are usually a massive waste of time for everyone involved. That is reason enough to cut off the long-winded witness.

“The court shall exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of interrogating witnesses and presenting evidence so as to (1) make the interrogation and presentation effective for the ascertainment of the truth, (2) avoid needless consumption of time” Ill. R. Evid. 611

Objecting To A Witness’s Narrative Answer Who You Are Questioning

More frequently, the narrative answer happens when you’re questioning a witness who is adverse to your case.

When the narrative answer begins to go way beyond the scope of your question, you need to take control of the direct or cross examination and object to the narrative and non-responsive nature of the answer.

“[I]t is an obvious requisite of orderly procedure that each side have a voice in determining the order in which the truth shall be told. But to deny the questioning attorney the privilege of having non-responsive answers stricken would make the course of direct examination infinitely more difficult and render cross examination virtually useless. Thus, the right to object to nonresponsive answers is one facet of a party’s right to present his case.” People v. Colts, 645 NE 2d 225 – Ill: Appellate Court, 1st Dist., 2nd Div. 1993 (Citations And Quotes Omitted)

You have the right to present your own case, on your own terms within the bounds of the rules of evidence. Remind the court of that right!

If you’re cross-examining a witness, there should be no opportunity for narrative answers. Your questions should only have yes or no answers by their very nature.

If the witness is providing narrative testimony on your direct examination, you can ask the court to declare the witness as a hostile witness and thus allow you to only ask leading questions as though it were a cross-examination.

“If the court determines that a witness is hostile or unwilling, the witness may be examined by the party calling the witness as if under cross-examination.”  Ill. Sup. Ct. R. 238

Remember, you are the star of your Illinois divorce trial. Not some long-winded witness.

What To Do If You’re Objected To For A Witness’s Narrative Response?

By the time the opposing counsel shouts, “Objection! Narrative response,” it is usually too late. The cat has been out of the bag for a while.

After the figurative record scratch, simply ask another question and remind the witness to not to let their answer exceed the scope of the question.

If the witness does exceed the scope of the question again, you or the opposing counsel may object asking that the witness’s surplus answer be stricken as nonresponsive. Most witnesses figure out what’s really expected of them very quickly.

If you’re concerned about controlling the witnesses in your case, you need an experienced Illinois divorce lawyer. Contact me today to share your story, your fears and your goals. I’ll tell you how to present your case in accordance with the Illinois Rules Of Evidence.

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Russell Knight

Russell D. Knight has been practicing family law as a Chicago divorce lawyer since 2006. Russell D. Knight amicably resolves tough cases while remaining a strong advocate for his client’s interests.

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