Information for Victims and Witnesses

The prospect of giving evidence in court can be daunting and victims and witnesses often want to know more about what to expect.

Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

If I give a statement to the police, will I have to go to court?

In most cases, witnesses don't need to give their evidence in court.

If a defendant pleads guilty, there won't be a trial. If they plead not guilty, the defence may accept the written evidence of witnesses so they're not needed at court.

However, in some cases the evidence of witnesses is vital and they will be called to give this evidence.

How will I know if I have to attend court?

The Witness Care Unit will contact you and they'll ask when you can attend court. They will then get in touch with the date of the hearing and which court it will be in.

Witness Care officers will ask you what support you might need to make sure you're able to give the best evidence you can in court.

For example, some witnesses might have childcare, transport or medical problems, disabilities, language difficulties, or they might be worried about being intimidated.

It's important to raise these with the Witness Care Officer so they can be addressed.

Before the hearing you'll be offered the chance to visit the court so you'll know more about what to expect on the day.

As the case progresses, the Witness Care Unit will update you on what's happening and will let you know the result.

Will I be paid for attending court?

You don't get paid for attending court but you can claim for the cost of your travel to and from court and for any loss of earnings.

If you're involved in a case at the Magistrates' Court, you'll be sent an expenses claim form and if you're involved in a case at the Crown Court, you'll be handed one at Court.

Will I have to face the defendant in court?

It's crucial that you are able to give the best evidence possible when you attend court.

Please voice any concerns you have to the police officer or witness care officer dealing with your case.

Some people might have serious concerns about facing the defendant in court and can  ask for special measures to be put in place.

It might be possible for screens to be provided so you can't see the defendant when you're giving evidence. It's also possible, in some circumstances, for victims and witnesses to give evidence via a video link from a location away from the court room.

These measures won't mean you're anonymous to the defendant but they will mean you won't have to face them.

There are separate waiting areas at court for prosecution witnesses and defendants or defence witnesses.

The Police or Witness Care officer dealing with your case will assess your needs and will talk to you about what measures can be put in place to allay any fears you might have.

Can I attend another hearing in the case?

If the defendant in the case you are a witness in has pleaded not guilty it is not advisable to attend hearings other than those you have been told to attend.

However, when you have finished giving evidence and have been discharged as a witness, you can attend. Many people want to go to the end of a trial and sentencing. You can't claim expenses for going to these hearings.

Victim Personal Statements (VPS) and Business Impact Statements (BIS)

You'll be given the opportunity to make a VPS or BIS before the defendant is sentenced. This statement will tell the Court about the impact the crime has had on your life or business.

If you make a VPS, you may be able to read this out at the sentence hearing. The sentencing judge will decide if this is possible. Alternatively the prosecutor can read it out on your behalf.

If you had special measures to help you give your evidence in court (e.g. a screen so that you cant see the defendant) you can also apply to have these when you're reading out your VPS.

If you make a BIS, you will not be allowed to read the BIS yourself but a prosecutor will read it out on your behalf

Will I need to go to the Magistrates' court or the Crown Court?

All criminal cases begin in the Magistrates Court but many are transferred to the Crown Court because of the type and seriousness of the offence committed.

Magistrates' Courts

These courts deal with summary only offences which are less serious, such as minor motoring offences and disorderly behaviour.

The cases are heard by magistrates, who decide on guilt and pass sentence.

The Magistrates' Courts can also deal with "Either Way" offences which are more serious, such as theft and some types of assault.

The magistrates will decide if these can be held in their court. Defendants in some cases can also opt for their case to be heard in the Crown Court.

Crown Courts

Cases at the Crown Court are heard before a judge and jury. The jury, made up of 12 members of the public, decide whether the defendant is guilty and the judge decides on the appropriate sentence.

The more serious cases are dealt with in the Crown Court, such as serious assaults, murder and rape.

What will happen when I get to court?

You'll be met by someone from the Witness Service who will explain the procedures in court and will answer any questions you may have.

Wherever possible, you will also get the opportunity to meet the Crown Prosecution Service caseworker or Prosecutor who will be dealing with your case. 

How long will I be expected to be at court?

This will vary from case to case but both the Crown Prosecution Service and the court aim to keep waiting time to a minimum.

There are separate waiting areas in the courts so that prosecution witnesses do not have to wait in the same room as either defendants or defence witnesses.

The Witness Service will do their best to keep you informed of how long you may have to wait.

Where there are long delays, witnesses are allowed to leave the court and return either later in the day or the following day.

This can be frustrating and inconvenient but it's not always possible to know in advance exactly how long each witness will take to give their evidence.

Can I look over my original police statement before I give evidence?

Yes but only at court and not before. The statement may help to refresh your memory as it might be some time since the incident happened.

What will happen when I take the witness stand?

You will be asked to swear or affirm and will then be asked questions by the prosecutor and the defence lawyer. You simply need to answer those questions truthfully and as fully as possible.

Speaking in court is, understandably, nerve wracking for most people. Take your time, don't panic, try to relax and ask for clarification if you need it.

Some of the questions may be difficult but if you don't understand anything you are asked, say so and ask for the lawyer to rephrase it for you. If you need a break dont be afraid to ask for one.

What happens next?

The magistrates or the jury will consider all the evidence before reaching a decision on whether the defendant is guilty or not.

If convicted, the defendant will then be sentenced by the magistrates or the judge. They don't simply consider punishing the offender when they decide on the sentence.

They will consider the impact of the offence on the victim, the background of the offender and the need to protect the public.

They will encourage the offender to make amends for their crime, they will look at why the offender committed the crime in the first place and whether there is an appropriate form of punishment to rehabilitate the offender.

Sentencing often doesn't happen straightaway as the judge or magistrates might ask for reports on the defendant from the Probation Service or Youth Offending Team to help them decide on the length of sentence.

The Crown Prosecution Service plays no part in deciding the sentence.

There are four types of sentence available to the courts:

  • discharge
  • a fine
  • community sentence
  • imprisonment.

Can the CPS appeal the sentence?

No, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) cannot appeal the sentence. The Attorney General is responsible for referring indictable only cases to the Court of Appeal if he believes that a sentence may be unduly lenient.

The Court of Appeal has the power to increase a sentence if it decides that it is, in fact, unduly lenient. However if the CPS feels a sentence may be unduly lenient, the CPS will draw it to the attention of the Attorney General for his consideration.