Going to court: What you can expect
If you have witnessed a crime and you are required to give evidence in court you will be supported through every stage of the court process.
You will only have to go to court if the defendent denies the charge and pleads not guilty, or pleads guilty but denies an important part of the offence which might affect the type of sentence he or she receives.
If you are asked to go to court you will be sent a letter telling you when and where to go and a leaflet explaining what will happen.
If you have any concerns or problems about going to court you should tell the officer dealing with your case straight away so you can be given the information and advice you need.
After your case has gone to court for the first time, a witness care officer will contact you, usually by phone, to discuss what happens next and check your availability to attend court. This is your chance to raise any needs or concerns you have.
During the court case, our Witness Care Unit will be your main contact for queries unless you’ve been appointed a family liaison officer.
They will also inform you whether the court has agreed to any ‘special measures’ to help you at court. At some point you may be asked to give evidence. You may have to wait for some time if a case is complex and lots of witnesses are involved but the usher will advise you when it’s your turn.
A member of the Witness Service will also be there to help you. The courts provide waiting areas for members of the public. In Nottinghamshire, there are separate sections for the prosecution and defence witnesses.
You’ll be shown to the witness box – this is where you go to give evidence and you can choose whether to swear an oath on the Bible or other sacred book, or make a solemn affirmation.
The prosecution advocate will then ask you questions to outline what happened. After that the defence advocate will ask you questions on what you have told the court – this is called ‘cross examination’.
You may be asked some more questions by the prosecution to clear up any points. Once this is done, you’ll be allowed to leave the witness box and you’ll be released from the court, although you can stay to hear the rest of the case if you want to.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I speak to someone if I have questions?
Yes, if the case goes to court you will be contacted by a Witness Care Officer who will keep you fully informed of the progress of the case.
Your Witness Care Officer will give you advice, information and support. They will be your single point of contact from the time the defendant is charged until the case is closed. They will also refer you to Victim Support and the Witness Service.
What is a Magistrates' Court?
Most cases will be heard at a Magistrates' Court first. When a defendant first appears at court, it's called a summary hearing. This is when individual charges are read out.
Magistrates are either trained members of the community or professional judges who listen to an outline of the case and consider requests from solicitors or the Probation Service for extra time to gather information.
At the first hearing, which you'll normally not be asked to attend, the court will decide how the case is to proceed. It's sometimes necessary for the case to be adjourned to allow further enquiries to be made or for the defence to prepare its case.
Some cases may stay in the Magistrates' Court. Others may be so serious that they need to be heard before the Crown Court or the defendant may elect trial by jury. In any event, your witness care officer will keep you advised of progress.
You'll only be required to attend court if the defendant pleads not guilty and the court needs to hear your evidence before making a judgement.
What is a Crown Court?
All Crown Court trials are heard before a jury. This is made up of 12 members of the public who listen to the case and consider the evidence to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not. They'll be directed by a judge - a highly qualified legal person - who will also decide on the type and length of sentence if the person is found guilty.
You'll also see other types of lawyers - advocates will outline the case for the prosecution and question witnesses.
The person charged with the offence will be represented and advised by an advocate and solicitor who dealt with the case in its early stages.
The traditions of the court are evident in how people dress. Most of the people involved in the legal process wear gowns and some will also wear wigs. Gowns are worn by the clerk to the court, who manages the court process, the judge and the advocates.
Advocates are either barristers, or solicitors who have attained higher rights to address the Crown Court. Ushers, whose job it is to call witnesses and take them to the witness box, may also wear gowns.
The colour of a judge's gown depends on his or her seniority. A High Court Judge wears red, a Circuit Judge, dark blue and a Recorder, who is a part-time judge, black.
Will the case be reported in the media?
There may be journalists in court to report the case. Most courts have a press box and there may be an office in the court building where they can write news coverage.
The media serves a role in the legal process by allowing the community to see justice being done and sentences given, which could act as a deterrent to others.
If the defendant is young, the case or initial hearings may be heard in a Youth Court which runs along similar lines to a Magistrates' Court. Very serious offences involving young defendants can be heard in the Crown Court.
What is Victim Support and the Witness Service?
Victim Support operates from a number of locations across Nottinghamshire. Their volunteers are specially trained to provide free and confidential information, support and advice to victims of crime.
This support includes someone to talk to, a quiet place to wait and a chance to see the courtroom before the day of the court case so you know what to expect.
What measures are taken for young people or vulnerable witnesses?
Courts can offer specialist help for vulnerable victims and witnesses. These 'special measures' include screens for the witness box, the removal of wigs and gowns, members of the public being asked to leave the court, or evidence being given through a television link which means the witness doesn't go into court. These measures are allowed at the discretion of a judge based on the circumstances of the case, such as evidence given by a young person.
If a police officer thinks you might need special measures he or she will discuss this with you and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS will assess the reasons given by the police and if these are considered suitable, apply to the court for them to be put in place.
Young people who are required to attend Crown Court can also visit the Victim Support website for an interactive guide on what to expect when they visit a Crown Court.
What happens if I don't want to go to court?
If there is reason to believe you won't go to court voluntarily the court may issue a witness summons against you.
If you still fail to go to court without a good reason, the court could find you in contempt of court and issue a warrant for your arrest.