Being a witness to a crime can be a frightening experience. If the offender is prosecuted it may mean the witness faces a long wait before the stress of having to give evidence in court. Because witnesses are often vital to the administration of justice, support and guidance is available for people who become involved in a prosecution in this way.
Prosecution and Defence Witnesses
A person may be called to give evidence for either the Prosecution or the Defence. However, the duty of anyone giving evidence is to assist the court by giving as accurate an account of the events as they can. The same witness may have things to say that help both sides in the case.
If a witness is called by the Prosecution they will first go through their story with the Prosecution lawyer before being cross-examined by the Defence. The Defence will try to cast doubt on anything the witness has said which supports the Prosecution case. This can be a very distressing experience – especially if the witness is also the victim of the alleged crime. The witness can end up feeling as if they are the one on trial. The Defence lawyer’s job is to convince the jury that the Prosecution has failed to prove their case, and they may use a combative approach to do this.
The most important thing for any witness to do is make sure that they understand what they are being asked and only say what they know to be true. Witnesses are entitled to answer a question by saying, “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember”. Witnesses should try not to become defensive even if they feel as if they are being personally attacked by the lawyer questioning them.
Before giving evidence the witness has to give a sworn oath that they will tell the truth. If the witness is religious they will give an oath appropriate to their religion. The court usher will help the witness find the relevant holy book and hand them a card from which they can read the words of the oath. If the witness is not religious they will give an affirmation that they will tell the truth. Again they will be given a card with the appropriate words on it.
The victim of a crime may be the most important witness in a trial. Indeed, they may be the only witness to the crime. Special support will be given to the victim and their family both before and during the trial. The level of support given, or required, will depend on various factors including the age of the victim and the seriousness and type of the crime
The Defence may ask some people to attend to give evidence on behalf of the Defendant. These may include people who cannot give evidence about the alleged crime but can give evidence about the Defendant’s character. The intention is that the witness will convince the jury that the Defendant is not the sort of person who would do what he is accused of – or that it was completely out of character.
Vulnerable witnesses, such as children or the victims of sexual crimes, are often given extra protection and support when they have to give evidence. This can include giving evidence from behind a screen so that they are hidden from the accused or having someone help them give their evidence.
If someone is called to give evidence in a trail and refuses to attend, a witness summons may be issued. This is a formal notice requiring the witness to attend court at a specified time. If the witness ignores the summons they may be arrested and brought to court where they could be charged with contempt of court. This can result in immediate imprisonment.
The police and the CPS run Witness Care Units, who give support to people who have provided witness statements. The police will refer witnesses to their local branch. At court support is provided by the Witness Service. They can give practical advice such as explaining how the trial process works and what to expect when the witness gives their evidence. If a witness is worried or frightened about giving evidence the Witness Service can also provide moral support. They can also assist the victim and any family or friends who come to court with them.
If someone has to take time off work to give evidence in a trial they will usually be able to recover money lost or spent in coming to court. The Witness Service can provide information about how much can be recovered and how to make a claim.