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Witness in a Criminal Trial

Most criminal trials take place in a Magistrates' Court. Magistrates hear the evidence and decide the guilty or innocence of the accused. If he is found guilty, the Magistrates usually decide on the sentence. The magistrates are normally three Justices of the Peace, or there may be just one qualified lawyer magistrate. In Court there will also be one solicitor who argues for the prosecution, and one who argues for the defendant.

More serious cases go to the Crown Court. A jury of twelve members of the public decide whether the defendant is guilty. The judge decides any sentence. Judges and other lawyers who speak in Crown Courts wear black gowns and wigs. In Crown Courts there are two barristers instead of solicitors. One arguing for the prosecution and the other for the defendant.

As well as being a witness in a straightforward criminal case. you may be involved in a committal hearing at a magistrates' court to decide whether there is enough evidence for a trial in a Crown Court. Or you may be involved in an appeal against conviction which will be in front of a judge in a Crown Court. but with magistrates instead of a jury.

In both types of court there will be a clerk who is responsible for running the proceedings. In a magistrates' court. the clerk also advises on legal matters.

You will also see court ushers who call witnesses, take messages. and generally help to run the court.

There may be other people in court such as police and probation officers. newspaper reporters and members of the public.

Before you go to court:

  1. Take all the papers you have about the case with you.
  2. If you think you will need an interpreter. ask the person who has sent you all the papers to arrange one for you now.
  3. Make sure you have the address of the court.
  4. Be prepared for quite a wait before it's your turn to give evidence. You may want to take a book or magazine to read.
  5. If you like. take a friend to keep you company. Your friend won't be able to get expenses (such as travel costs) unless the court agrees he or she must be there, for example to look after your child while you give evidence, or if you are disabled. Check with the person who sent you the papers.

When you arrive at Court

  1. Give the receptionist or usher the name of the defendant and show the papers you have brought with you, so they can tell you where to wait.
  2. If you are worried about meeting any of the other parties. tell the usher when you arrive. There may be a separate room where you can wait.
  3. It is much better not to talk to anyone about the evidence you will be giving in case you are asked about this in court. If you have discussed the case with other people you might find when you get into court your evidence is doubted. (You can of course speak to police oflicers. solicitors or other people dealing with the case).
  4. Don't leave the court until you are told that you are no longer needed.
  5. If you have an important reason to leave early, tell the usher before the case starts. It is sometimes possible for you to give evidence out of turn.
  6. If you want to have a look in the court room before your case starts, you can do this first thing in the morning or at lunchtime.
  7. lf there is some time to wait before your case starts you can sit in the public gallery of the court room and listen to other cases. If you do this, tell the usher where you have gone. Once your case starts you have to leave the court room and wait outside until it is your turn to give evidence.
  8. If you have made a statement and you want to see it before you give evidence, you will normally be allowed to. Ask an usher or a police oflicer to get a copy.

Some cases are delayed or even put off until another date. This may be because an earlier case has gone on longer than expected or an important person in the case has not arrived. Sometimes a defendant pleads guilty on the day of the trial so witnesses are told at the last minute that their evidence is not needed.


You can claim expenses for travelling to court, and there is an allowance for meals and other things related to your appearance in court. such as lost wages. If you haven't already got a claim form, ask the solicitor or barrister how your expenses will be paid. In some cases advance payments can be made.

Important: Please note that our law-bytes are retained for archival purposes only. The law changes, and these notes are often, now, out of date. You must take direct advice on your own personal situation and the law as it currently stands.
All information on this site is in general and summary form only. The content of any page on this site may be out of date and or incomplete, and you should not not rely directly upon it. Take direct professional legal advice which reflects your own particular situation.
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Copyright and Database Rights: David Swarbrick 2012
18 October 2013 95 18 October 2013