Being a witness in a criminal trial

What is a witness?

A witness is a person who gives evidence usually in court regarding a crime that has occurred.  Witnesses play a very vital role in helping the police to deliver justice and solve crimes. Without witnesses, the criminal justice system would not work.

You may be asked to give evidence as a witness in the following situations:

  • If you know something about a crime or incident
  • If you were the victim of a crime
  • If you are an expert witness which means you have specialist knowledge of a subject
  • If you know one of the people that were involved in a case – in this instance you might be called upon as a character witness

Many people feel nervous and anxious about coming forward with their evidence or giving it in court.  The Witness Charter is something that helps most witnesses.

The Witness Charter

The Witness Charter is a commitment from the criminal justice system and it basically aims to provide a high standard of service to witnesses throughout their experience with the Criminal Justice System.

For intimidated and vulnerable witnesses, an enhanced service is provided.

The Witness Charter is something that can help many first time witnesses or simply any witness who is feeling nervous or unsure about giving their evidence.

What happens after I report a crime or tell the police my evidence? 

After you have reported a crime or told the police something you know which is relevant to a crime or incident a police investigation will commence.

This is something which may take several months so it is highly likely that it may be some time before you hear anything further about the case.

The information that the police have is used to try and catch the offender.

 

What powers the police have depends entirely on whether the committed offence carries the power of arrest.

Less serious offences mean that the accused will not be arrested but will be summoned to attend court.

The Case – what happens next?

Once the police have finished their investigations you will be informed of a trial date and which court you are to attend.

If you are a prosecution witness then you will receive a “witness warning letter” and if you are a defence witness the defence lawyer will contact you.

The court has the power to issue a witness summons – this mean that you will have to attend court unless you have already been excused due to illness or other serious reasons.

You should inform the person who asked you to come to court if:

  • You have any disabilities or special needs
  • You need an interpreter
  • You would like to visit the court on a day before the trial commences

Going to court

When you arrive at the court you need to report to the reception desk and give the name of the defendant (all cases will be listed under the defendant’s name) and the letter asking you to attend court.

You will normally be met by a member of the Witness Service and, depending on who has asked that you attend you will also be met by a representative from the Prosecution or Defence.

Then, you will have to wait until you are called as a witness. If you would like to read through the statement that you gave then you can ask.

You should not talk to anybody excluding police officers and lawyers dealing with the case about the evidence you will be giving before you go in to the witness box, if you do this then your evidence may be doubted in court.

When it is time for you to give your evidence an usher will come to collect you and take you to the witness box.

Giving your evidence

You are asked to take the oath which means that you have to swear to tell the truth on the holy book of your religion.

If you are a prosecution witness, you will firstly be asked questions from the prosecution lawyer followed by questions from the defence.

If you are a defence witness, you will be questioned by the defence lawyer first followed by the prosecution lawyer. This is what is known as cross-examination.

Many witnesses are worried about cross-examination but it is important to remember that it is vital to the outcome of the case.

Also remember:

  • There is nothing personal being asked – it is a lawyer’s job to ensure you have made no mistakes
  • You are not the one on trial – if the questions become too aggressive the judge or magistrate can ask the lawyer to stop the questioning
  • The law in England and Wales is based on the idea that any defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

Once you have finished giving your evidence, the court will permit you to leave the witness box and you may also be told that you are released meaning you are free to leave.

On occasion, you might be asked to stay. This can happen after your evidence has been given if something new comes up.

After both sides have presented all the evidence they have the prosecution and defence lawyer will each give closing arguments to sum up their cases. Depending on where the case is being heard, the magistrates, the jury or the district judge will then determine whether or not the defendant is guilty.

Once your evidence has been given, the court will permit you to leave the witness box and you may be told that you are released, you can now leave. Normally this indicates that you are free to go, but on occasion if something new comes up you may be asked to stay.

Sentencing

If the defendant is found guilty, they will be sentenced, this may be immediately or they may return to court at a later date to receive their sentence.

The four types of sentencing available to the courts are:

Remember there is lots of advice and support available for all witnesses