Frequently asked questions

It is not surprising that many people find the prospect of giving evidence in court a daunting one. Witnesses will, understandably, have questions about what to expect. We can't give all the answers here, but we've tried to give a brief response to some of the most frequently asked questions.

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

The majority of cases are dealt with without the need for witnesses to give evidence in court.  If a defendant pleads guilty, a trial is not needed.  In some cases where they do not plead guilty, the defence may accept the written evidence of witnesses which means they will not be required to appear in court.  However, there will still be cases in which the evidence of witnesses is vital to the prosecution case and they will be called to give this evidence in court.

Why isn't the crime being prosecuted?

When we look at whether to prosecute a crime we have to decide:

  •  if there is enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, and
  •  if it is in the public interest to do so.

Further details on how these decisions are made and the circumstances which are likely to lead to a prosecution can be found in our Code for Crown Prosecutors.

How will I know if I have to attend court?

The Witness Care Unit will contact you to determine dates that are convenient for you to attend court.  They will then advise you of the date of the hearing and which court you need to attend.
 
Witness Care Officers carry out a full needs assessment with witnesses to identify what support they need to enable them to attend court.
 
The needs assessment is an opportunity for witnesses to raise any issues that may prevent them attending court to give evidence, such as difficulties over childcare or transport provision, medical problems or disabilities, language difficulties, or concerns over intimidation.  Some witnesses may simply need reassurance about what to expect when they get to the court.
 
The witness care officer will co-ordinate the support needed to address these concerns and assist you in attending court.
 
Before the day of the hearing, you will be offered the opportunity to take part in a pre-court visit; this includes being shown round an empty courtroom and finding out more about what to expect on the day.
 
The witness care officers will provide updates about the progress of the case, and at the end of the trial make sure that victims and witnesses are told about the result and any sentence.

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

The court you have to attend depends upon what crime was committed.  Criminal cases are divided into the following three types of offence.  Every criminal case begins in the magistrates' court.  Indictable only offences and some either way offences will be then sent to the Crown Court.

  • Summary only offences.  These are less serious cases and are heard in the magistrates' court.  This type of offence includes minor motoring offences and disorderly behaviour.
  • Either way offences.  These are more serious cases and can be heard in either the magistrates' court or before a judge and jury in the Crown Court.  These offences include all cases of theft and some categories of assault.  Usually, the magistrates decide whether the case should be heard in the Crown Court.  Sometimes the defendant can choose to be dealt with in the Crown Court.
  • Indictable only offences.  These are the most serious cases and must always be heard in the Crown Court, which has more lengthy sentencing powers.  This type of offence includes murder and rape.

In the magistrates' court, the case will be heard by two or three magistrates, who decide whether the defendant is guilty.  However, the magistrates may decide they do not have the appropriate powers to deal with the case and send it over to the Crown Court.
 
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.

What will happen when I get to court?

You will be met at court by members of the Witness Service who will talk you through what to expect, explain the procedures and protocols in court, and be on hand to answer any questions you may have. 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 and the Crown Prosecution Service aims to keep waiting time to a minumum.

There are separate waiting areas in the courts, which mean that prosecution witnesses do not have to sit in the same room as either defendants or defence witnesses while waiting to give evidence.  We will do our 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.  We realise that this can be frustrating and inconvenient, but it is not always possible to know in advance exactly how long each witness will take to give their evidence.

Can I read my original police statement before I give evidence?

Yes you can read it.  Since it will have taken some time for the the case to come to court, you may have forgotten some details you mentioned at the time of the incident and looking at the statement will help refresh your memory.

What will happen when I take the witness stand?

When you give evidence you will 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 do ask for clarification if you need it. Some of the questions may be difficult, but if you do not understand anything you are asked say so and ask for the lawyer to rephrase it for you.  If you need a break, do not be afraid to ask for one.
 
Vulnerable or intimidated witnesses can make an application to the court for special measures to help them give their best evidence in court.

What happens next?

The magistrates or the jury will consider all the evidence put before them before reaching a decision on whether the defendant is guilty or not.
 
If convicted, the defendant will then be sentenced by the magistrates or judge.  This may happen straight away, but is more likely to be adjourned to another date to enable the Probation Service or Youth Offending Team to prepare a pre-sentence report.  The Crown Prosecturion Service plays no part in deciding the sentence.
 
There are four types of sentence available to the courts:

  • discharge,
  • a fine,
  • community sentence, or
  • imprisonment.

 

When magistrates or judges pass a sentence, they need to consider more than simply punishing the offender.  They need to consider the impact on the victim, the background of the offender, the need to protect the public, encouraging the offender to make amends for their crime, looking at why the offender committed the crime in the first place and whether there is an appropriate form of punishment to rehabilitate the offender.

The Witness Care Officers keep prosecution witnesses up to date with any developments in the case as they happen, and will inform them of the outcome of the case and any sentence imposed.

Can the CPS appeal the sentence?

No, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) cannot appeal the sentence.  The Attorney General is responsible for referring indicable 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.