Advice & Support: Staff members being a witness at court
You hope that you’ll never need to attend court as part of your work.
However, school staff are sometimes needed to attend court, for example as a witness to a crime in the workplace or following a disclosure made by a vulnerable child.
This can send some staff into a panic. Perhaps this is the first time you’ve needed to attend court, perhaps you know nothing about courts or perhaps you feel saddled by the responsibility of giving evidence. Added to this may be an expectation that you keep a high level of confidentiality about what you witnessed.
These issues aren’t always easy to resolve, but there are some steps we can take to lessen the stress, anxiety or pressure you may be feeling: You can help yourself by knowing about support and about how courts works.
These five tips are for appearing as a witness at an English law court. They help you to prepare for the important day.
1. Contact the witness support service
Witness Support Services exist. Google your local one and you’ll probably find a phone number but no website. So, phone the Witness Support Service at your court and ask about what they do, for example:
- What do you provide?
- Are witnesses able to sit in a separate area?
- Is it possible to visit court before the day of the case so that, by the day of the case, it’s a less unfamiliar environment?
- Where in the court building are Witness Support based?
- Do you have any leaflets/booklets that help prepare people for attending court?
- Is there a Victims Code?
- Are there any rules on having someone with me?
Avoid expressions like ‘help me prepare for the case’: this can be misunderstood as asking for help with your evidence. The evidence is yours alone – the service won’t help you prepare evidence, but can try to remove any obstacles that might add stress or pressure on the day of the case.
The criminal justice system expects that you don’t discuss your evidence with others prior to the case, but if you’re unsure of what this means, it’s a good question to ask the witness support service for clarity on.
2. Talk to your line manager about support
You may be unable to discuss matters with your family or colleagues because of confidentiality. However, often your head, deputy or a safeguarding lead will be aware of some, if not all, of the circumstances.
Even still, don’t expect them to have all the answers. This might be the first time they’ve experienced something like this.
So, speak to whoever you think is best. In particular ask questions around:
- Which colleagues is it ok to discuss this with?
- Can we book in some time the day after the case to debrief?
- Who would be the best person for me to do this with? Can we get a debrief in the diary now to make sure that he/she has enough time on that day?
- Is there any support through Human Resources for situations like this? Am I ok to ask them?
It’s important for you to have as clear an idea about the support available in the work place.
3. Know that you may be waiting around for a long time on the day you attend court
You should be given a day and time to attend court. Magistrates’ courts often list cases for either 10.00am or 2.00pm. Within the court building, there are likely to be several courtrooms, each hearing a range of cases.
A courtroom may have eight cases listed at 10.00am. The magistrates then work through these cases. If the court runs out of time in the morning session (10.00am until 1.00pm), then remaining cases get moved to the afternoon list (although sometimes court staff can switch the case to another courtroom if they find one that is less busy).
If you are appearing as a witness at a magistrates’ court trial, the court may have allowed more time for this: It may be that there are only one or two cases scheduled in that courtroom on that day. Even still, no one can be certain how long you’ll wait before giving your evidence.
Crown courts can also be unpredictable and involve lots of waiting.
Take something to occupy your mind, for example a book, some training handouts that you never got round to reading or even the latest 9000lives.org blog post!
4. Read “Going to Court and being a witness”
Even though you’re an adult, this government publication is very accessible and gives you information about how the court works. It is aimed at 12-17 years olds, so not all of it is relevant to adults. However, it is a quick and easy way to help you to prepare: Click here to read it.
Alternatively, Google: Going to court and being a witness a booklet for young witnesses (12-17 years).
NB: If there’s also a primary aged child who’s also going to have to give evidence on the same case, there’s also a version of the document for 5 – 11 year olds. You can download it here.
If you’re travelling a long way, need child care or the time off work is unpaid, you can claim some expenses. Click here for the gov.uk advice on expenses.
5. Know that its ok to find it uncomfortable or stressful
You might be uncomfortable that your evidence could send someone to prison, get them a criminal record or even end their career.
Another way of looking at this is that your evidence helps to ensure justice is done – whether the defendant is found guilty or not guilty.
All you are doing is truthfully saying what you saw, heard or did. Your job is to just tell the truth. It is the judge or magistrates’ job to decide on guilt and/or sentence based on every bit of evidence in the case.
We can’t always remove all of the discomfort or stress that staff feel in court.
However, we can follow the five steps above to help minimise the impact upon our own wellbeing and make sure we’re in the best frame of mind to give our best evidence.