Being a Witness in a Criminal Trial

What is a court witness?

A witness in criminal proceedings is someone who gives evidence in relation to an alleged crime. Witnesses play a vital role in helping the police and the prosecuting authorities to deliver justice. Without witnesses, the criminal justice system could not properly function.

If you are a witness or potential witness, you may be asked to give evidence if:

  • You know something about a crime or incident
  • You are the victim of a crime
  • You are an expert witness, ie. you have specialist knowledge of a subject
  • If you know someone involved in a case – in this instance you might be called upon as a character witness

It is normal to feel anxious about coming forward with your evidence, particularly if you face the prospect of giving evidence in court. The Witness Charter helps witnesses understand what is involved.

What’s the Witness Charter?

The Witness Charter is a commitment from the criminal justice system setting out a minimum standard of service to non-expert witnesses throughout their experience with the criminal justice system.The Witness Charter can particularly help first time witnesses, and witnesses who are feeling nervous or unsure about giving evidence.

In the case of intimidated and vulnerable witnesses, the Charter includes special measures. For instance, a vulnerable witness may be able to give evidence from behind a screen or by live video link.

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

When you report a crime, or tell the police something you know which is relevant to the crime or incident, a police investigation will most likely commence. Your evidence may be crucial in helping the police find the suspect. However, it can take several months before you hear anything further about the case, so don’t be surprised if you hear nothing for some time.

What happens if the case comes to court?

If the suspect is formally charged with an offence and your evidence is needed, you will be informed of a trial date and the court where you are required to attend.If you are a prosecution witness, you will receive a witness warning letter or witness summons. If you are a defence witness, the defence lawyer will contact you with details.

The court has the power to issue a witness summons, which means you must attend court (unless you have already been excused due to illness or other good reason). If you don’t attend you could be fined.

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

  • You have any disabilities or special needs
  • You need an interpreter or you need to use the induction loop system in court
  • You would like to visit the court on a day before the trial commences

What happens when I go Court?

When you arrive, you will need to report to the reception desk and give the name of the defendant. You will need to show them the letter requiring you to attend court.

You will normally be met by a member of the Witness Service, and a representative from the Crown Prosecution Service or defence solicitors (depending on who are giving evidence for). You will have to wait until you are called as a witness. If you want to read through your written witness statement then you can ask to do so. You may not be called on the day after all – it is not unusual for time to run out on the day, or for a case to be adjourned – in which case, you may be called on another day. You will then be told the new date and time.

It is vital to note that you should not talk to anyone about your evidence before you go into the witness box, except police officers and lawyers dealing with the case.

What happens when I give my evidence?

You will be asked to take the oath (which means swearing to tell the truth on the holy book of your religion), or to give an affirmation.

If you are a prosecution witness, you will be asked questions by the prosecution lawyer, and you will then be cross-examined by the defence.

If you are a defence witness, you will be questioned by the defence lawyer and then you will be cross-examined by the prosecution. It is normal and understandable for witnesses to worry about cross-examination by the other side, however, it is important to remember that it is vital to the outcome of the case. The evidence given by any witness needs to be tested to enable the court to reach a just decision – a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

If you have been required to attend court as a witness, remember that it’s the lawyer’s role to ensure you have made no mistakes. Also, you are not the one on trial: so if questioning become too aggressive the judge or magistrate can rein in the lawyer.

When you have finished giving evidence, the court will allow you to leave the witness box and you may also be told you are free to leave. Occasionally, however, 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 their evidence, the prosecution and defence lawyer will each give closing arguments to sum up their respective case. The jury (or magistrates or judge) will give their verdict. If the defendant is found guilty, they will be sentenced (either immediately or they will be brought back to court at a later date for sentencing).

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.