Advice on Attending Court

By the very nature of their occupation, security professionals, especially door supervisors, are likely to witness many different types of crime.

From possession of contraband to incidents of violence, vandalism and even attempted sexual assault, the sheer number and variety of crimes witnessed by the average DS is potentially staggering.

Today, aided by the proliferation of technology such as body-worn cameras (BWCs) and SmartWater, it is far more likely that hard evidence of these crimes will be collected and used to obtain a conviction.

This means that, as a DS, you are more likely than ever to be called as a witness to appear in a court case. This can be an intimidating request, especially since the evidence you present will be heavily scrutinised and your story cross-examined by lawyers on both sides of the case.

WTD has published a guide to giving evidence if you have to attend court elsewhere on the site, but in this feature, we’ll be going into more detail about what is expected of you by the court hearing, what you should and should not do, how to present and conduct yourself and how the British judiciary process works in general.

This is information worth knowing, as it’s conceivable that your appearance in court could be the difference between justice being served and the perpetrator essentially getting away without punishment. 

Magistrates’ Court

The function of any court proceedings is to figure out exactly what happened during the incident in question and what should be done about it.

Courts decide whether a person or organisation committed the crime of which they are accused and, if they did, what their punishment will be for doing so. They will also take steps to establish the reasoning and motivations behind the crime, as this is always important.

Courts also offer peaceful resolutions to private disputes (for example, between rival businesses or individuals) wherein a compromise cannot be otherwise reached.

Many criminal court cases begin in a magistrates’ court, with the vast majority of them being resolved there as well. A magistrates’ court, essentially, handles smaller ‘summary’ cases in which the defendant is not entitled to trial by jury.

Examples of such cases may include motoring offences, minor incidents of assault, criminal damage under £5000, shoplifting, drunk and disorderly conduct and health and safety violations. The maximum sentence that can be handed out by a magistrates’ court is 6 months’ imprisonment.

Some cases may be heard by either the magistrates’ court or the crown court. These are usually referred to as ‘either way’ cases and can include instances of serious assault, drug-related offences, theft, indecent assault, and burglary. This is usually at the discretion of either the accused or the court and is often decided by the severity of the offence.

In magistrates’ court, a verdict of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ will be decided either by the magistrates or by a District Judge.

If magistrates are hearing the trial, they will sit in benches of three. This will include two ‘wingers’ and one in the middle that is known as the ‘presiding justice’. All three have an equal vote regarding the innocence or guilt of the accused, though the presiding justice will announce the decision and, if applicable, the punishment.

Magistrates are ordinary citizens with no prior convictions who have demonstrated good judgement or a degree of moral character in the past. It is an unpaid volunteer position, though they can claim expenses.

As stated above, the majority of cases will begin and end in a magistrates’ court. However, for more serious offences, cases may be moved to crown court. In the more serious cases, once a defendant has been found guilty by a magistrates’ court, they will receive sentencing from a crown court.

Crown Court

As a matter of course, magistrates will pass serious cases (e.g., murder, robbery, rape, etc) to the crown court. The defendant may request trial at crown court if accused of an ‘either way’ offence, but they will have no choice in cases of serious offence.

The crown court has far greater powers of sentencing than the lower courts. It can impose almost any fine, as well as life imprisonment, should the crimes be severe enough to warrant such sentences.

Unlike magistrates’ court, defendants in crown court are entitled to trial by jury. A jury is selected randomly from twelve members of the public, while a judge oversees the proceedings and will commonly have a Plea and trial preparation hearing.

The judge will likely hold some legal qualifications and may be a practicing solicitor, though litigation experience is not a prerequisite to serving as a judge. Many judges work part-time while operating in other areas (usually law-related). However, a full-time judge may not practice law in any other capacity. Unlike magistrates, judges are paid handsomely for their time.

It is a judge’s responsibility to preside over the court hearing to ensure a fair trial. A judge will be familiar with all the details of the case in question, will consult with experts on specific matters and ultimately pass sentences according to the law.

In this country, crown court judges and barristers must wear ceremonial wigs and gowns and conduct themselves according to tradition. For example, the judge is to be addressed as “your honour”, while barristers usually address one another as “my learned friend”.

Crown Prosecution Service

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is a public agency, independent of either the police or the government, that decides which cases should and should not be prosecuted.

Acting in the name of the crown, the CPS decides whether or not there is sufficient evidence for a case to go to trial, as well as whether obtaining a prosecution would be in the public interest.

Though the CPS does not act on behalf of the victims of crime, they do consider the victims and their families when deciding if a case should be prosecuted or not.

Attending Court as a Witness

If you have witnessed a crime, there’s a reasonable chance that you may be invited to a court hearing to give evidence. This can be somewhat nerve-wracking, but it’s important to remember a few things.

1)   The person that committed the crime may well have committed others before hand and, if their crime goes unpunished, they may continue to commit similar crimes. The criminal justice system is designed to keep people safe, but it can’t work without meting out punishments where appropriate.

2)   All you are being asked to do is explain to the court what you saw and when. That’s it. Nobody is expecting you to be a legal expert.

3)   The prosecution will probably be on hand to coach you through the whole experience and make sure that you don’t say the wrong thing or behave inappropriately. You will have help.

4)   Giving evidence to police and occasionally testifying in court is part of your job as a security operative.

If you are required to give evidence, the first thing that will happen is that you will be told the time, place, and date of your scheduled court appearance. As you await the date, you should familiarize yourself with your initial witness statement so that you know it intimately.

This may seem arbitrary, or even silly, but it really isn’t. The human memory is notoriously unreliable and the way you view the events now, may not be exactly as you experienced them when they happened.

For example, if you have a Facebook account, click on the ‘memories’ section and see how many of those status updates you actually remember posting!

Your verbal account is going to need to match your written statement precisely, or else you may be considered an unreliable witness, which damages the prosecution’s case. So re-read your written statement until you know it exactly.

When the big day arrives, be sure to get there quite a bit earlier than you need to. Inform the court staff or Court clerk that you have arrived as soon as you get there. Various people (such as the CPS representative, police officer in charge of the investigation or a lawyer for the prosecution) may wish to speak to you regarding your testimony, so speak with anybody who asks. If you need to, take another look at your written statement.

If you are nervous, bored or unsure as to how a courtroom functions, please note that you are permitted to take a seat at the back of the court and watch other cases as they play out, so long as you are quiet and respectful and stand or sit according to instructions. However, when the trial you are participating in begins, you must leave until formally called.

Remember, you are not expected to behave as a professional witness (such as an expert witness may be expected to do).  Your role in the proceedings is fairly simple. You are being asked to tell the court verbally what is written in your original witness statement and answer questions regarding it.

The court will, in turn, consider your evidence (along with whatever else is being presented) when deciding upon a verdict. Honesty is expected, of course. You are also expected to remain as impartial as possible. Relay only the facts, not your opinions (unless they are specifically relevant to your account) and avoid seeming judgemental or overly emotional.

You should be dressed formally, as a trial is a formal occasion. Either magistrates or a jury may be inclined to make judgements on your credibility as a witness based on how you look and act, so it is important to look professional and to conduct yourself accordingly.

We’ve written before about the dangers of perjury, but it’s an important thing to mention, so we’ll go over it again. Perjury (lying to court) is a very serious offence – and is illegal under the terms of the Perjury Act 1911.

Perjury is treated so seriously by UK courts that it carries with it a maximum sentence of up to 7 years in prison. Additionally, a witness found to be perjuring themselves on the stand can ruin an entire case, as it damages the prosecution’s credibility almost irreparably.

Oath or Affirmation

Upon taking the stand, you will be formally sworn in as a witness (this is the part where you swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”), which is a legally binding statement. You will be asked to raise your right hand and recite either the oath or the affirmation.

The oath is recited after a Bible is placed in your right hand, after which you will solemnly swear “by almighty God” that your testimony will be the truth.

If you are not of the Christian faith, a different Holy book can be used. For example, a Koran can be provided if you are a Muslim or a Hebrew Bible or Siddurim (Jewish prayer book) could potentially be made available if you are Jewish. If you are of any other faith, you can contact the court ahead of time and arrange to be sworn in via any holy text or script that is mutually agreed to be acceptable and appropriate.

For atheists, there exists the affirmation. The affirmation, essentially, is a promise that you solemnly declare to be honest. It functions exactly the same way as the oath but does not incorporate the belief in a higher power into its verbiage.

In any instance, this is a legally binding statement and puts those who lie at risk of facing perjury charges.

Once the oath or affirmation has been declared, you will be asked a few personal details, such as your name, age, and occupation. This is simply to confirm your identity to the court. You will then be questioned regarding your statement.

Presenting the Evidence

Speak with confidence and clarity when addressing the court. Stand up straight and answer any questions as directly as you can. Avoid using bad language, colloquialisms, or potentially offensive terminology, unless you are quoting somebody else and be sure to address members of the court correctly (e.g., refer to the judge as “your honour” or a magistrate as “sir”, “madam” or “my lord” – whichever is appropriate).

You may mis-speak or make a mistake when recounting your version of events. Due to the formality and unusually high pressure of the situation, this is quite common. If this happens to you, admit to it straight away and excuse yourself. Do not attempt to ignore it, as this will make you look unreliable, while amending your testimony to avoid admitting a mistake amounts to perjury. Correcting your mistake quickly and admitting to it demonstrates your honesty if nothing else.

There’s nothing wrong with saying “excuse me, I mis-spoke. I’m a little bit nervous”. This is entirely understandable, given the circumstances and should not really pose a problem for anyone, although it is conceivable that the defence lawyer may pick up on it and refer to your mistake during cross-examination.

If this happens, simply be firm, stay calm and stick to your story. You know what happened and that you are telling the truth, your only task is to continue to do so and not become flustered. This is one way that re-reading your witness statement prior to the trial will really pay dividends.

The Cross-Examination

Once you have answered the prosecution’s questions, the defence will be invited to ‘cross-examine’ you. This is probably the most strenuous part of the day as the defence’s job here is to essentially ‘stress test’ your story.

The narrative put forward by the defence will be based around what the accused alleges has happened (usually a version of the story wherein they are the innocent party, or there are exonerating circumstances that explain their actions). Your account will differ from this, so the defence will attempt to make your version of events seem unreliable in order to cast doubt on your testimony and thus the prosecution’s case.

Again, it really helps to know your initial account of events by heart.

The defence may attempt to ‘get under your skin’ by making things personal. They may question your memory, not only of events, but also in general. They may subtly imply things that are not true (simply to ‘get a bite’) or they could even call you a liar outright. This can be extremely upsetting, not only because the day is already stressful, but also because your competence, honesty and basic decency can all be called into question in an attempt to make a guilty person look innocent.

It is during this time that those anger management tips we’ve covered elsewhere, as well as your basic training will be put to good use. You must not be goaded into an outburst or argument; you must not become outwardly frustrated with the defence. You must simply stick to your story and tell the truth. It can be very frustrating, but you must have faith that the truth will win out.

Remember also that the defence is simply doing their job. Try to think of yourselves as professional athletes playing for different teams, as opposed to enemies. Their job is to attack all the evidence you gave, your job is to keep all the evidence consistent and clear. Their job is to frustrate or upset you, your job is to remain calm. It’s not a personal attack, even though it will probably feel like one.

Think carefully about any answer you give and ask for clarification if you do not understand anything. Keep your answers clear, concise and to the point and if you’re not sure, you may answer “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know”, which is definitely preferable to guessing. If you are asked to provide a guess or an estimate, do so only if you feel able to.

The defence may ask you questions in a ‘rapid fire’ fashion in an attempt to get you to answer quickly (and therefore not totally consider your answer). Don’t let them dictate the pace. Take your time before answering and answer only when you are ready. Everything you say will become a matter of court record, so it is imperative that you choose your words very carefully.

Once the cross-examination is over you may be re-examined by the prosecution or else asked to leave the witness box. At this point, you have the option to leave the court hearing entirely or to sit and watch the rest of the trial. You may be called back to the stand at a later date, but in most cases, once the witness has given a statement, their part in the proceedings has concluded.

Giving evidence in a court hearing can be quite intimidating. It can also be frustrating at times. However, the right to a fair trial is one of the cornerstones of any free and fair society and it is important that we all acknowledge this.

Be honest, maintain a clear mind and a cool demeanour and follow the advice in this feature. If you do all that, you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Criminal Injury Compensation Authority

The following may not be specifically relevant to the rest of this feature, but we feel that it is worth knowing, nonetheless.

The Criminal Injury Compensation Authority (CICA) is a government funded scheme that compensates blameless victims of crime in the UK. If you are a British citizen (or meet certain residency requirements) and the crime has been formally reported to police, compensation can be applied for within 2 years of the incident occurring.

CICA was founded in 1965 in order to grant innocent victims of crime a measure of financial compensation for injuries such as physical scarring, broken bones, loss of vision or psychological problems caused by the crime (such as symptoms of PTSD).

If, as a result of assault or some other form of violent crime, you are suffering from the above conditions, you may be entitled to compensation from CICA.

Additionally, Victim Support is a charity that deals directly with victims of crime, helping them to improve their lives and move past difficult situations. Their website can be found HERE.