Being a Witness

Why should I be a witness?

Witnesses have a vital role to play in bringing criminals to justice. By having the courage to stand up and be a witness you can prevent further crimes happening and protect others from becoming victims.

The criminal justice system can only work effectively with your help.

Just Deserts video

As we saw in the video about Jerome sometimes a Prosecutor will look at a case file and suggest collecting other evidence to strengthen the case. The Prosecutor and Police work closely together to make sure that Criminals are brought to justice.

Jerome had a difficult decision to make, should he be a witness against the robbers or not? Find out what he decides in Just Deserts.

This video is in Flash format.

If you cannot see the video you can download Flash or watch the second part of the video on YouTube

Giving a Witness Statement

statement

A witness statement is your written or video recorded account of what happened to you. A police officer will ask you questions and write down what you have said. You will be asked to read it and sign it with your name. When you sign a witness statement you are saying that you agree the statement is a true account of your experience. Your witness statement may be used as evidence in court.

Sometimes witness statements are recorded on DVD or video. Whichever way you make your statement you will be able to see it or read it again before you give evidence in court.

If you are the victim you will also be asked if you want to make a Victim's Personal Statement. This allows you to include anything you have not said in your witness statement and could include the following:

  • How the crime has affected you physically, emotionally or financially
  • Whether you feel vulnerable or intimidated
  • If you are worried about the defendant being given bail
  • Whether you are considering claiming compensation
  • Anything you think may be helpful or relevant

Find out more about making a Victim's Personal Statement

Help in court - Special measures

Special measures are available to help people under the age of 17, vulnerable people, such as people who are scared, elderly or disabled, and people who have problems communicating, give the best evidence they can.

Special measures include:

  • Using a video of their evidence in court
  • Answering questions using a live video link from another room in the court
  • In sexual cases, giving evidence in private
  • Clearing the court of people who do not need to be there
  • Advocates and Judges in the Crown Court removing their wigs and gowns
  • Aids, such as sign and symbol boards, for people who have difficulty speaking
  • Screens to prevent a witness having to see the defendant
  • An intermediary to help explain the questions or answers if necessary

Witness Care Units

Once a charge has been brought your local Witness Care Unit will be informed. They ensure that victims and witnesses are looked after. The Witness Care Unit manages the care of victims and witnesses from the point of charge through to the end of a case. They are staffed by representatives from the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Each witness has a Witness Care Officer. The Witness Care Officer acts as your single point of contact and will keep you informed of the case's progress from the point of charging the suspect, to sentencing or acquitting the defendant.

Witness Care Officers assess the needs of all victims and prosecution witnesses where defendants have pleaded not guilty. They work out if you need special measures help in court. They also work out if you need other help such as transport, language difficulties, child care, medical issues and if you are worried about intimidation.

If you need special measures the Prosecutor will apply to the court for permission to use them. They do this as quickly as possible. The Magistrates or Judge have the final decision about what special measures a witness can use.

Sometimes witnesses meet with the Prosecutor to talk about going to court or the special measures they need to help them give evidence. The Prosecutor is not allowed to discuss other people's evidence but will explain and answer questions about giving evidence in court.

The Witness Care Officer talks to the witnesses and victims about giving evidence; they can answer questions and talk about what will happen in court. They can arrange visits before the trial to see the court, or the live link room where you will give evidence. They can also put you in contact with other people who may be able to help you, like Victim Support.

Publicity

publicity

Courts can order newspapers, TV and radio not to identify children and young people involved in court cases. This means they cannot publish their names, addresses, their school, pictures or any details that could identify them.

In most sexual cases, courts can make an order saying that the name of the victim must never be made public. We always try to protect children from publicity by asking the court to make these orders whenever it is possible.

What happens to witnesses in court?

Young people and children are looked after by a special witness supporter in court. The Courts Service will make sure you have a separate waiting area.

The Witness Care Officer will arrange for you to meet the Advocate before the trial if possible. The Advocate will talk to you about what will happen during the trial.

We will also try to arrange for young people and children to meet the Judge or Magistrate before the trial.

We try to make sure that you do not have to wait more than two hours to give evidence.

You will not be allowed into the courtroom to observe the trial until you have given your evidence.

Giving evidence by video link

videolink

If special measures have been arranged for you to give evidence via a "live link" you will be taken to the live link room. Sometimes it is possible to give evidence from another building. When you use the live link you sit in a room with a TV, a camera and a supporter from the court. You can see the Judge and the Advocates, but not the defendants; everyone in the court room will be able to see you answer the questions.

If you have made a statement on video this will be shown to the court before you are asked questions.

Giving evidence in court

witness

If you are going into the court you will be shown to the witness box. The witness box may have screens so you don't have to look at the defendants if this has been arranged through special measures.

You should stand up, but if you find standing difficult, you can ask the magistrate or the judge if you can sit down

You will be asked to take the oath. This means you have to swear to tell the truth on the holy book of your religion. If you prefer, you can "affirm", that is, promise to tell the truth.

Cross-examination

If you are a witness for the prosecution the Advocate will ask you questions first, then the defence will ask you questions. This is known as cross-examination.

Although it can be worrying, cross-examination is an essential part of our justice system.

It is important to remember:

  • It isn't personal: it's the lawyers' job to make sure you have not made a mistake.
  • You are not on trial: The lawyers are not trying to make people think you are stupid, or call you a liar. If the questions become too aggressive, the lawyer who called you as a witness has a right to ask the judge or magistrates to change their style of questioning. The judge or magistrates can also ask the lawyer to stop the questions.

The law in England and Wales is based on the idea that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty: Cross-examination tests your evidence to make sure it really proves something.

judge

You may also be asked questions by a Magistrate, the Clerk or the Judge. In a Crown Court the Jury can write down questions for the Judge to read out.

Once you have given your evidence, the court will tell you that you may leave the witness box. You may be told that you are released, this means that you can leave. You may be asked to stay after you have given evidence if something new comes up. You can stay and listen to the rest of the case if you want to.

When both the prosecution and the defence have presented their evidence, the Crown Prosecutor and the Defence lawyer will summarise the evidence from their point of view and present arguments to support their case. This is called 'closing arguments' or 'summing up'. Then, depending on where the case is heard, the Jury (in Crown Court), the Magistrates or the District Judge (Magistrates' Court) will then decide whether or not the defendant is guilty.

The Witness Care Officer will tell you the result of the case.

Glossary

Advocate
advocateAn Advocate is a Prosecutor with a lot of experience and learning, who speaks in court.
Charge
chargeA charge is made when the Crown Prosecution Service say that they think a person has done a crime and should go to court. The court will decide if there is enough evidence to show that the person did do the crime.
Crown Court
crown courtThe Crown Court listens to cases against people who are accused of very serious crimes like murder or rape.
Defendant
defendantA defendant is a person accused of a crime.
Evidence
evidenceEvidence is information that makes it clear that something happened.
Judge
judgeThe Judge is the head of the court who decides about things to do with the law.
 
In some courts the Judge decides if the defendant did the crime.
 
In other courts the Jury tell the Judge if they think the defendant did the crime.
 
The Judge makes sure the trial is fair, tells the jury about the law and decides the sentence.
Jury
juryA Jury is a group of 12 men and women who listen to a trial at the Crown Court and decide if the defendant did the crime or not.
Magistrates
magistrateMagistrates are trained volunteers who deal with about 95% of the criminal cases in England and Wales. Magistrates make decisions in Magistrates' Courts. They usually work in twos or threes (called a bench). They have a legal adviser to help them with the law.
Prosecutor
prosecutorProsecutors are lawyers who represent the people. Prosecutors speak in court to accuse a person of a crime.
 
They show the court the evidence they have found.
 
They do this to protect the public.
Sentence
sentenceMagistrates and Judges decide what sentence to give people found guilty of a crime.A sentence is a punishment but it also tries to:
 
Reduce crime
 
Make things better - restorative justice
 
Protect the public
 
Help the defendant understand what they have done and feel sorry
 
Stop the defendant doing the crime again
Statement
statementYou make a statement by writing down or recording what you saw, or what happened to you.
Suspect
suspectThe suspect is the person the police think did the crime.
Victim
victimThe victim is the person the crime was done to.
Witness
witnessA witness is a person who sees the crime being done, or sees or knows something that shows who did it.
Witness Care Officer
witness care officerA Witness Care Officer is someone who looks after witnesses during a court case.