How court works
If you’ve been told that you need to go to court to give evidence, you may be confused about the different types of courts, how they work, and who the people involved in the case are.
Here are some of the main details about the courts and how they work; your witness supporter can help you if you have any questions or worries.
Some of the legal language and names that are used in court can also be confusing, so if there are any words or phrases that you don’t understand.
Magistrates’ court, Crown Court, youth court – what’s the difference?
All criminal cases involving adults begin in the magistrates’ court. The decisions in this court are made by three magistrates, and it is generally less formal than the Crown Court – for example the magistrates do not wear the white wigs or the gowns that officials wear in Crown Court.
Whether a case is heard in this court, or is passed on to the Crown Court, depends on how serious the crime is, and whether the person accused pleads guilty or not guilty.
Crown Court trials usually involve more serious crimes. The person who makes most of the decisions in the Crown Court is the judge, although the most important decision – whether a defendant is guilty or not – is made by the jury, a group of 12 people selected from the general public who listen to all the evidence in the case.
If the person accused of committing a crime is under 18, the case will normally go to the youth court – unless it's a murder or manslaughter case, when it will automatically go to the Crown Court. Some other serious crimes carried out by children or young people, such as rape and aggravated burglary, may also go to the Crown Court for trial. Hearings in the youth court are not open to the public.
What happens in court?
If you are going to court as a witness, you are there to tell the court about what you saw or heard, or about what happened to you. This is called giving evidence, and the judge or magistrates will use this information to help decide if someone has broken the law, so it’s really important that you tell the truth.
There are witnesses for the prosecution, which is the team who are helping the victim, and for the defence, which is the team who are helping the defendant – the person accused of doing the crime. Each side could have more than one witness.
What does ‘giving evidence’ mean?
Whether you are a witness for the prosecution or the defence, you will be given a date and time to arrive at the court to give your evidence.
You may have to wait several hours before you can give evidence (and in some cases, you may have to wait until the next day), but you will be able to stay in the witness waiting room until it’s your turn. This is away from the defendant and their supporters.
If you are giving your evidence in the courtroom, you will be sitting opposite the lawyers, and both the prosecution and defence teams will ask you about what happened and what you saw or heard. If you have asked for special measures, you may be able to give your evidence via a TV link or from behind screens.
However you are giving evidence, your witness supporter will be there to help you. Most people feel nervous, so remember, you haven’t done anything wrong. Try to listen carefully to the questions, give your answers clearly, and ask for a break if you need one.