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Advice for witnesses

Before the courts can find someone guilty or not guilty of a crime, they need to hear and consider the evidence provided by witnesses.

If you are asked to be a witness in a trial or a hearing in court, you play an important part in delivering justice.

By making a promise to tell the truth and by giving your evidence in court, you make it possible for the magistrates (or the judge and jury if you are called to be a witness in the Crown Court) to understand what really happened.

What is it like to be a witness?

You may not know what to expect if you are called as a witness - or you may find it very different from what you expected. It is not unusual for people to feel anxious about giving evidence in court. Perhaps you are not sure if what you say, or how you say it, will help make sure that justice is served.

People who work in the criminal justice system know the experience can be new or strange for you, and will do what they can to make sure you are treated with respect and sensitivity.

If you have any problems or concerns about going to court, you must let the person who asked you to go to court know as soon as possible.

The Witness Service

You can talk to a trained volunteer from the Witness Service before you go to court, and a volunteer will be at the court to help you. They cannot discuss evidence or give legal advice, but they will be a friendly face who will show you around the court and tell you what will happen. There is a Witness Service in every criminal court in England and Wales.

Trained volunteers will give you:

  • General information on court proceedings
  • Personal support before, during and after the hearing
  • Someone to go with you into the courtroom if you have to give evidence
  • A visit to a court before you give evidence so it will not seem strange to you on the day.

You can find their details in the phone book under the name of the court. Or, you or your parent/guardian can contact the Victim Support line on 0845 30 30 900.

Where will you give your Evidence?

There are three kinds of court where you might be called to give evidence.

  • Magistrates’ Court
  • Crown Court
  • Youth Court.

The person or organisation who writes to you telling you when and where you will be needed as a witness will include details of which kind of court the case will be heard in.

Special measures in court

If you are under 17 at the time of the court hearing you may be eligible for special measures as a ‘vulnerable witness.

What are the special measures?

Screens

A screen is placed around the witness box so that the witness cannot see the defendant.

Live link

The witness sits in a room away from the courtroom where the case is being tried and gives evidence through a live TV link. The witness can see the judge, magistrates or district judge and lawyers, and people in the courtroom can see the witness.

Evidence in private

The public gallery is cleared except for one member of the press.

Removal of wigs and gowns

The judge and lawyers do not wear the formal black robes (gowns) and wigs that they usually wear in the Crown Court.

Video-recorded evidence-in-chief

Before the trial, the witness is recorded on video answering questions asked by a police officer. The video is played at trial.

Aids to communication

Child witnesses under 17 or adult witnesses who are vulnerable because of their physical, mental or learning disability or disorder are allowed to use a communication aid (for example, an alphabet board) to help give their evidence in court.

Intermediary

An approved independent intermediary can help child witnesses under 17 to communicate with legal representatives and the court.

Help for young witnesses

Young witnesses are entitled to see the courtroom before the trial and to get an explanation of what is expected of them. You can ask the police about what help is available to prepare for court.

  • All Crown, Magistrates’ and Youth Courts have a Witness Service with trained voluntary workers available to help all witnesses and their families. They can also act as child witness supporters.
  • In addition, some areas and courts have special child witness supporters who act as a link between you and the court and can help prepare you for court.
  • Local Victim Support schemes are also a useful source of help and advice for you, your parents and carers.
  • Social services departments may offer support to young witnesses where the defendant is a family member.
    Remember:
  • It is right to tell the police what has happened
  • It is not your fault that the crime happened
  • A witness who tells the truth is not doing anything wrong
  • A witness is not to blame for what someone else may have done
  • Witnesses do an important job but they are not responsible for what the court decides.