A Tale of Two Courtrooms: Giving Evidence in the Crown Court vs Magistrates Court
Appearing in court is a nerve-wracking affair.
It’s intimidating even if you aren’t the defendant being charged with a crime: Back in 2016, a watchdog found that more than 10,000 criminal cases had to be dropped because witnesses simply didn’t show up on the day.
Whether you’re due to appear in Crown Court or Magistrates’ Court, we’ve compiled this easy guide to break down the jargon and explain what will happen on the day.
Keep reading to learn how to prepare the right way.
Types of Offence in the UK
In English law, all criminal offences fall into three categories:
- Summary-only offences
- Triable either-way offences
- Indictable-only offences
The difference is in the type and severity of the alleged crime committed. You might call a summary offence a “petty” crime, such as a motoring offence, criminal damage case, or an instance of minor assault.
In 2020, 74% of cases in the UK were summary offences, while 23% were triable either way. The remaining 3% were indictable offences.
Indictable-only offences are serious crimes, such as murder, manslaughter, FGM, and rape. Either-way offences are those that fall somewhere between summary and indictable incidents. They’re often crimes that have a broad spectrum of possibilities, such as assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
As you’d imagine, the maximum punishment for summary offences is far more lenient for more serious crimes – most summary offences carry a 6-month maximum penalty of £5,000. Indictable offences are punishable with up to life in prison.
Magistrates’ Court vs Crown Court
The key difference between the Magistrates’ and Crown Courts is the type of offences. In virtually all cases, summary offences are tried at Magistrates’ Court.
Crown Court, presided over by a judge with a jury present to deliver a verdict, deals with either-way and indictable offences.
In other words: Serious crimes are tried before a judge and jury, while lesser criminal cases are tried before a panel of judges.
What Is A Magistrates’ Court?
Magistrates’ Court is a lower court that handles most summary offences. Usually, a Magistrates’ Court is presided over by three judges, who hear a case and pass a judgement – though it’s not unheard of for only two judges to be present.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases in the UK.
Giving Evidence in Magistrates’ Court
Cases heard in Magistrates’ Court are typically resolved far more quickly than in a Crown Court. Often, you’ll only be required to attend court for a day, and we’ve compiled a list of tips for you on how to give evidence in a clear and concise manner.
You will be asked questions by the panel of judges directly and may be cross-examined by the defending lawyer.
What Is A Crown Court?
The Crown Court primarily handles indictable offences, as well as either-way offences that are triable only as indictable offences because of the circumstances of the incident.
Giving Evidence in Crown Court
Cases that go to Crown Court are heard before a jury and the most severe criminal cases can take months to reach a verdict. If you’re required to give evidence before the Crown Court, you may find yourself waiting around for a long time to be called up.
Sometimes, certain witnesses are ruled out as unreliable or not needed by the CPS or defendant’s lawyers – but usually, if you’re there, you will appear before the court.
Witnesses wait in a separate room from defendants and their families to prevent conflicts. On the day, a representative from the Citizens Advice Witness Service will help you find your way around.
They will listen to and address any concerns you may have, and accompany you when you give evidence.
What Is an Expert Witness?
Expert witnesses are people with extensive knowledge of specialist topics. They may include forensic experts, cyber security specialists, data analysts, and coroners.
Ultimately, it’s up to the courts to decide who can and cannot give evidence as an expert witness. And importantly, an expert witness cannot offer up their own opinions, claiming them as fact – that’s hearsay and isn’t admissible as evidence.
Expert witnesses are expected to provide independent opinions in accordance with the questions they are asked. They don’t speculate on areas beyond their expertise and don’t provide advice to the courts on how to proceed.
Prior Considerations Before the Court Day
Before you go to court, you will need to take care of a few administrative tasks. That can include hiring a babysitter and informing your boss or manager that you’re required to give evidence in court. Your employer can’t refuse your request for time off, but they aren’t required to pay you for it.
However, you are able to claim expenses from the government.
If you suffer from a disability or require a translator to help with your statement, you can contact the CPS for assistance, which will be provided to you.
Finally, if you’re considered a vulnerable witness, the CPS will offer additional protections, such as shielding your identity to prevent a defendant from knowing who you are.
Etiquette in the Courtroom
Regardless of whether you give evidence at Crown Court or Magistrates’ Court, you must observe courtroom etiquette. This includes matters such as:
- Dressing in formal attire
- Treating your witness statement seriously
- Being clear and precise in your testimony
- Answering questions directly when asked
- Staying on topic
It’s important that you don’t volunteer information or meander when you’re asked about a matter. You’re giving evidence in court to answer specific questions that may (or may not) be deliberated over by a jury.
Prepare for Court Testimony
Whether you’re headed for Crown Court or Magistrates’ Court, knowing how to prepare in advance helps calm your nerves and ensures you’ll give fair and accurate testimony.
If you need assistance to prepare for court, we can help. At Sytech Forensics, we offer consultancy and training for court appearances to ensure our clients give professional testimonies. Click here to arrange a free consultation.