Going to court
The court case
The majority of criminal cases are heard in a magistrates' court. A very small percentage of cases are heard in the Crown Court.
Most criminal cases are heard in a magistrates' court. The magistrates are usually people who live in the local community, sometimes called justices of the peace. There are usually three magistrates who are supported by a legally trained advisor. Sometimes cases are tried by one magistrate, called a district judge, who is a lawyer.
Magistrates' courts are not as formal as the Crown Court, the magistrates do not wear wigs and only the ushers (court officials who keep everything running smoothly) wear black gowns.
Some cases are heard in the Crown Court. There are three situations where a case may be 'tried' at the Crown Court:
- Serious crimes
- Cases where the defendant (the person accused of the crime) has asked to have his case tried by a jury
- Magistrates may send a case to the Crown Court if they feel they do not have the power to set a sentence as severe as the crime deserves
Cases at the Crown Court are tried by a jury. These are 12 people from the general public who listen to the evidence presented during the trial and decide if the defendant is guilty of the crime. The judge decides on matters of law during the trial, such as whether certain evidence is allowed to be presented. The judge also makes sure the trial proceeds in a fair way. At the end of the trial if the defendant is found guilty the judge decides the sentence for the crime (for example how long the defendant must spend in prison).
Who prosecutes the case?
In both Crown Court and magistrates' court, there will be advocates who prosecute the case on behalf of the Crown.
The Crown Prosecution Service has a statutory obligation to ensure that the prosecution advocate is introduced to you at court and answers your questions.
The defendant will have their own legal representative in court to defend them against the charges.
Before the trial
Before the day of the trial it is a good idea to find out as much as you can about what will happen and what is expected of you.
Your witness care officer may do a 'needs assessment' with you to see if you need special help in court. This help may range from an interpreter, to a closed circuit TV link.
Your witness care officer may also be able to arrange a visit to the court before the trial.
For some witnesses the process of giving evidence in court can be particularly difficult. Children under 18 years of age, victims of sexual offences and the most serious crimes, persistently targeted victims and people with communication difficulties are some examples of people who may need special help.
These witnesses (described as vulnerable or intimidated), may be allowed to use special measures to help them give their evidence in the best possible way.
The special measures that may be available are:
- Giving evidence through a TV link: The witness can sit in a room outside the courtroom and give their evidence via a live television link to the courtroom. The witness will be able to see the courtroom and those in the courtroom can see the witness on a television screen;
- Video recorded evidence: The witness' evidence is recorded and played to the court;
- Screens around the witness box: A screen is placed around the witness box to prevent the witness from having to see the defendant;
- Removal of wigs and gowns: The judge and lawyers in the Crown Court do not wear gowns and wigs so that the court feels less formal. This is usually used for young witnesses;
- Evidence given in private: This is when members of the public are not allowed in the courtroom;
- Use of communication aids: This is when the witness needs to use an aid to communicate. For example, this could include anything from computers, voice synthesisers or symbol boards to toys, books or an alphabet board; and;
- Examination through an intermediary. An intermediary is someone who can help a witness understand questions that they are being asked, and can make his or her answers understood by the court
A combination of special measures may be appropriate. For example, if a witness who is to give evidence by live link wishes, screens can be used to shield the live link screen from the defendant and the public, as would occur if screens were being used for a witness giving evidence in the court room.
If you feel you need extra help in court then talk to your witness care officer who will discuss the options with you. If appropriate, the prosecutor will apply to the court for permission to use 'special measures'.
The Courts Service has a legal requirement to make sure you have a separate waiting area and seat in the courtroom away from the defendant's family, where possible. They will also try to make sure that you do not have to wait more than two hours to give evidence.
Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service has a statutory requirement to make sure you have a separate waiting area and seat in the courtroom away from the defendant's family, where possible.
They will also 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 court room to observe the trial until you have given your evidence.
When you are called into the courtroom the following things will happen:
- You will be shown to the witness box
- 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, to promise to tell the truth.
- If you are a witness for the prosecution the Prosecutor or Crown 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.
You may also be asked questions by a magistrate, the clerk or the judge. In the 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 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.
Your witness care officer will tell you the result of the case.
Magistrates and judges are responsible for deciding what sentence to impose on people found guilty of a crime.
Magistrates and judges are responsible for deciding what sentence to impose on people found guilty of a crime. They have to take into account the following factors:
- The facts of the case
- Reducing crime
- Protecting the public
- Rehabilitating the offender
- Restorative justice - trying to repair the damage the crime has done to the victim and community
- Sentencing guidelines - these are guidelines set down by the Sentencing Council
- Circumstances of the offender - the Probation Service may need to produce a report about the offender.
The Sentencing Council has produced a short film explaining how sentences are worked out, which can be viewed here (if you cannot view the video you can read the transcript here):
There are four types of sentence available to the courts, depending upon the seriousness of the crime. They are:
- Discharge - this is when the court decides that given the character of the offender and the nature of the crime, punishment would not be appropriate. There are two types of discharge:
- Absolute discharge - no further action is taken, since either the offence was very minor, or the court considers that the experience has been enough of a deterrent. The offender will receive a criminal record.
- Conditional discharge - the offender is released and the offence registered on their criminal record. No further action is taken unless they commit a further offence within a time decided by the court (no more than three years).
- Fines - the court can order that the offender pays a fine. The maximum fine allowed in a magistrates' court is £5000. Fines are unlimited in the Crown Court.
- Community sentences - these combine punishment with activities designed to change offenders' behaviour and to make amends - sometimes directly to the victim of the crime. These can include:
- Compulsory (unpaid) work
- Participation in specified activities
- Programmes aimed at changing offending behaviour
- Prohibition from certain activities
- Curfew (may involve electronic tagging)
- Exclusion from certain areas
- Residence at a particular place
- Mental health treatment
- Drug treatment and testing
- Alcohol treatment
- Attendance at a particular place
- Imprisonment - for the most serious offences the court may impose a prison sentence. The length of sentence is limited by the maximum penalty for that crime. The sentence imposed by the court represents the maximum amount of time that the offender will remain in custody.
After the trial
After the trial the Crown Prosecution Service will explain the sentence to you and answer any questions you may have and the Witness Care Unit will inform you of the outcome of your case.
People convicted by a magistrates' court can appeal to the Crown Court against their conviction and the sentence. People convicted by the Crown Court can appeal to the Court of Appeal. If these appeals are rejected they can go on to apply for permission to appeal to the House of Lords.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission is independent of both government and the courts and reviews alleged miscarriages of justice that have been through the appeal process. It can refer a case back to the Court of Appeal if there is a possibility that either a conviction or a sentence would not be upheld. Referral of a case to the Commission depends on some new argument or evidence being discovered that was not raised at the trial or appeal.
During the sentence
If you are the victim of a violent or sexual crime and the defendant/offender in your case was sentenced to 12 months or more in prison, then the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is required by law to contact you.
Under the Victim Contact Scheme, NOMS will give you general information at key stages in the offender's sentence, such as when:
- important changes in their sentence, e.g. if they are moved to an open prison
- how and when they will be released.
The Probation Service will be unable to give you detailed information about offenders, for example which prison the offender is in, the exact date of release or exact location of release.
The Parole Board is required to take into consideration the risk to you when considering whether it is safe to release an offender on parole. You are able to make a victim's personal statement that will be considered by the Parole Board when making its decision.