Going to court as a witness

If your case goes to court, you may well be asked to be a witness in the trial.

The courts rely on the commitment of victims and witnesses to speak out and help stop crime. There are thousands of people acting as volunteers in support services that keep the courts running smoothly and efficiently.

Types of Court

Magistrates’ Court: Magistrates’ courts are for less serious offences. All magistrates are volunteers from the local community who go through special training. Three magistrates hear each case and pass sentence.

Crown Court: Crown courts are for more serious offences. Because of the seriousness of the cases, they are heard by a judge and a jury. The jury decide if it believes the accused is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt and the judge passes sentence.

Youth Court: There are special youth courts to handle most cases involving young people. They have specially-trained magistrates and cases are heard in private. Like in all courts, the accused can be found not guilty and released without criminal record or they can be found guilty and sentenced.

If you have any concerns or questions about what happens next after witnessing a crime, our team is here to help you. Whether you simply need support after seeing something upsetting or want to know what kind of role you’ll play as a witness in court, you can contact us whenever you’re ready.

Outside of a court

What will happen in court?

When you arrive at court you can get help from a Witness Service volunteer.  You can ask to see a courtroom before you give evidence if one is free. You can also get help from the Witness Service before the trial. The Witness Service volunteer will explain all aspects of what will happen and what is required.

When you go into the courtroom you will be ‘sworn in’ by reading from a card. This means you agree to tell the truth.

When a lawyer asks you questions you can:

  • ask them to repeat a question or ask it in a different way;
  • say if you don’t know the answer;
  • ask them to explain any words you don’t understand; and
  • ask for a glass of water or say if you don’t feel well.

It can be stressful but just tell the court what happened to you or what your saw in your own words.

After you have given all your evidence you are free to leave the court, however you can stay to watch the rest of the trial if you are aged 14 or over.

You are not allowed to discuss anything you have said or heard in court with other witnesses who haven’t given their evidence yet. This includes talking about it on any social media.

Special Measures

For some people the process of giving evidence in court can be particularly difficult. In some cases, witnesses who are vulnerable or intimidated can be helped to give their evidence in the best possible way. In criminal cases this is known as ‘Special Measures’.

Not everyone is able to have the assistance of Special Measures. There are certain rules that must be met before an application can be made to the court by the prosecution. It is for the judge or magistrates to decide whether to allow a witness to have a special measure.

Special Measures include:

  • Video recorded evidence
  • The use of screens around the witness box
  • Giving evidence via live video link (in a room away from the court room)
  • Evidence given in private (no press or public allowed in the court room)
  • Intermediary (being helped by someone to understand the questions and to articulate your responses)

Click here for more information on Special Measures.

Victim Personal Statement

The purpose of the Victim Personal Statement (VPS) is to give the victim (or the victim’s family, in some cases) the chance to explain the effect that the crime has had on them physically, emotionally and financially.

If you choose to make a VPS you can do this in writing, or have it recorded if the facilities to do so are available. However it is important to note that it may be recorded by the media. Once you have completed your VPS it cannot be changed or withdrawn if you change your mind, however you can provide another one to add more information.

It is also important that victims are aware that a VPS will be considered as evidence if the case goes to trail. Therefore, the defence can cross-examine the victim on their VPS and ask the victim questions if the court decides it’s relevant to the case.

If you choose not to make a VPS when first offered the chance, you can still make one later as long as it is before the case goes to court. However, you should be aware that some cases go to court very quickly.

The Witness Service

The Witness Service delivered by Citizens Advice provides free and independent support for both prosecution and defence witnesses of crime, in every criminal court across England and Wales. Specially trained volunteers provide practical guidance on the process and emotional support to help witnesses feel more confident when giving evidence.

Need support?

The Victim Care Service provides free, non-judgmental and confidential help to victims of crime, witnesses, their family, friends and anyone else directly affected by crime.

You can take up our support at any time. We can work alongside the Witness Service and continue to support you after the trial.