There are three kinds of court where you might be called to give evidence.
- Magistrates' Court
- Crown Court
- Youth Court.
The person or organisation who writes to you telling you when and where you will be needed as a witness will include details of which kind of court the case will be heard in.
Most criminal cases that come to court are tried in magistrates' courts.
Magistrates listen to all the evidence - including the statements that you and any other witnesses give - and decide whether the person accused of the crime (the defendant) is guilty or not. If the defendant is found guilty or admits he or she is guilty, the magistrates usually decide the sentence.
The magistrates may be three local people (sometimes called justices of the peace or JPs), supported by a legally trained advisor, or there may be just one magistrate (called a district judge, who is a lawyer). No one in a magistrates' court wears the white wigs often seen on judges or lawyers in films and on TV, and only the ushers wear black gowns.
There will be a lawyer (or a team of lawyers) who speaks for the prosecution. In most cases, another lawyer (or team of lawyers) speaks for the defendant - who is also known as 'the accused'.
The picture above shows a typical magistrates’ court. The magistrates sit behind a raised bench and the witness box is usually to one side near the front of the court.
Trials before a judge and jury in the Crown Court are usually only for very serious crimes, or where the defendant has asked to have his/her case tried by a jury. Magistrates may send a case to the Crown Court if they feel they do not have the power to set a sentence as severe as the crime deserves if the defendant is found guilty.
After listening to all the evidence, the jury tells the judge whether they find the defendant 'guilty' or 'not guilty'.
The judge decides on matters of law. If the defendant is found guilty or admits he or she is guilty, the judge also decides the sentence.
In court, there will be a lawyer (or a team of lawyers) who speaks for the prosecution, and a different lawyer (or team) who speaks for the defendant.
The picture above shows a typical courtroom of the Crown Court. Judges and some lawyers wear wigs and gowns. The court clerk also wears a gown and, in some courts, a wig, too. There is also an area for the jury to sit.
Most defendants under 18 are dealt with in the youth court by specially trained magistrates or by a district judge. There is no jury in these cases. Unlike the adult magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court, which are usually open to the public, the law restricts access to the youth court to:
- Members and officers of the court
- Both sides involved in the case and their legal representatives
- Other people directly involved in the case
- Members of the media and other people who the court has authorised to be present. (The media may report the proceedings but may not normally name any young people involved in the case).
A child or young person will not be tried in a youth court if he or she is charged:
- With murder or manslaughter (these cases always go to the Crown Court for trial)
- With a very serious offence, such as robbery, and the youth court considers the greater sentencing powers of the Crown Court may be needed
- Jointly with an adult (a person aged 18 or more). These cases are heard in the adult Magistrates'Court or the Crown Court.
The picture above shows a typical youth court. The magistrates usually sit on the same level as everyone else in the court.