A witness is someone who knows facts pertinent to a case. A witness may also give opinion evidence of matters of an expert nature or may be called to give evidence of the character of the person charged with an offence. The information given to the court by a witness is recorded as evidence, which is used to make a judgment in the case.
In criminal trials, witnesses may be required by the prosecution (the side bringing the charge to court), or by the defence (the person charged and his/her lawyer). In the Magistrates Court, criminal matters are usually prosecuted by the police. The police Witness Scheduling Unit arranges for the attendance of prosecution witnesses at court.
In civil trials, witnesses may be required by the plaintiff (the side bringing the action to court) or the defendant (the person defending the action).
The notice that the court issues to a witness to attend court is called a Summons. If a summons to attend court at a given date and time is disobeyed (ie the witness does not attend court), the court may order a warrant be issued to bring that person to court.
What to Expect
You should attend the court on the date and time as arranged with the party requesting your attendance (or if you were served with a summons, on the date and time specified in the summons). Firstly, look at the case list to find out which courtroom the case is in.
When you have found the courtroom the case will be in, tell the Sheriff’s Officer in that courtroom who you are and why you are there. Then take a seat and wait until you are required to give your evidence. Note that the process for a victim or vulnerable witness to give their testimony may be different, as it is aimed to protect them from the defendant.
When it is time for you to give your evidence, you will be asked to stand in the witness box. First, you will be sworn in. This means you must take an oath, or make an affirmation, to tell the truth. The most common form of oath will require you to hold the Bible, Koran or appropriate item while a court officer asks you,
"Do you swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you (God/Allah etc)?"
to which you reply,
Or you can choose instead to make an affirmation, in which case you will be asked to say;
"I [your name] do truly and solemnly declare and affirm that my evidence will be completely truthful."
Perjury (giving evidence you know to be false) is a serious criminal offence.
After you have been sworn in, you will be asked questions by the party who requested your attendance (i.e. if you are a witness for the prosecution, the prosecutor will ask you questions, or if you are a witness for the defence, the defence lawyer will ask you questions). The Judicial Officer may also ask you questions while you are in the witness box. You should try to answer all questions as clearly and simply as possible.
When you have finished giving your evidence, the other side may cross-examine you, i.e. they may ask further questions about the evidence you have just given.
The amount of time you will have to spend in court depends on the nature of the trial and where you fit in as a witness. Some trials can be over in an hour or two; others can take days, weeks or months. You may be required to attend court again on subsequent dates to give more evidence.