Last Monday I travelled to the Birmingham Judicial Courts to spend the day learning about the ins and outs of the building and the systems and organisations that take place there. A woman from Citizen Advice gave me a tour and helped answer all my questions in the best detail possible. She started with saying that her role in the organisation is voluntary and explained that they provide emotional and practical support for witnesses coming into court and act as a witness protection service. They meet different people with different circumstances everyday through the justice system and alleviate them of any worries or fears they may have. When witnesses enter the court building, they are met by a table of the organisation’s staff and are then guided to a nearby and public room or are taken to a private room where they will stay with and support the witnesses throughout the day and give advice on who everyone is in the courtroom and what the procedure and order of the day will be.
Witnesses may be in court for cases on; domestic abuse, burglary, assault, theft, etc. When the crime has occurred, the witnesses will be contacted by police and asked if they would give a statement. If the police have then got enough efficient evidence, they refer the case to the Crown Prosecution Service which decides whether to prosecute the defendant. This is a lengthy process and may take a while to go through. Individuals, defendants and witnesses, are then given a date to be present in court and are asked if they wish for a pre-trial visit around the courtroom and to be explained to of who will be in there on the day of the trial and what will happen.
The most popular question asked by witnesses is; will I have to see the defendant? Witnesses may see the defendant in the trial room, but special measures can take place where witnesses can either give evidence via a TV screen which is shown in court and where they can’t see the defendant but the defendant and everyone else in the courtroom can see them, or a protective screen can go up. This is where the witness is present in the same room as the defendant and everyone else but a screen is put up in the witness box/around the witness chair and the defendant can’t see you and vice versa. These measures take place in order for the court to be given the best evidence possible. If witnesses are ages 17 or under, then they are automatically granted for special measures, yet if you are above this age, then you have to ask for these measures. When it comes to the trial day, Witness/Citizen Advice sit in a private room with the witness if they have special measures. No one else can be there as it may affect the witness(es)’ statement.
The rules in court are that; 14-17 year olds don’t do an affirmation (an oath), but have to promise to tell the truth and if they wish to, can promise on a holy book and up to 14 years old, witnesses are asked if they know the difference between right and wrong, between the truth and a lie. Also, anyone can watch the trial but cannot talk. This occurs in all the courts; Coroner’s Court, Magistrate’s Court and Crown Court, apart from Family Court and Youth Court which are privet. The Youth Court is for offenders under 18 years old and is a private court where no observers or even family can attend as this court is only used for the duration of when the individual is giving evidence. Individuals need permission if they wish for their parent/primary care giver or for an appropriate adult to go into the trial with them as they are still a child and the defendants could get a criminal record and go to a youth offending centre. Magistrates have the power to send them to the centres for up to two years. The trials that take place here aren’t very serious but if the crime is serious, such as murder, then the youth defendant will go to the youth court to begin with and then the case will be transferred to the Crown Court which deals with all severe cases.
Every person, witness or defendant, has to swear on a holy book or an affirmation which doesn’t refer to a specific God. As soon as you enter the courtroom, you take an oath affirming to tell the truth. If an individual cannot read, then the Usher will read out the oath and the individual will repeat it.
In a typical court room, in a coroner’s or Magistrate’s Court, there will be three Magistrates at the back of the court which has one chairman and two supporters called wingers. These people aren’t legally qualified but are trained to hear all evidence and decide an outcome and if a person should be found guilty or not and will decide on the custodial sentencing which only lasts up to around 6 months/2 years, if they are found guilty. Before the defendant enters the courtroom, the Magistrates are unaware if they have committed a crime before. Then there is a Court Clerk who is legally qualified and sits at a computer taking notes on the trial and to refer back to later on if there is an appeal. The witness stays in the witness room until being brought into the courtroom by an Usher, who wears formal attire, through the back door so they cannot see the defendant or their family, and can only see the Magistrates, Court Clerk, Usher and the Lawyers for accusing and defending, and there may also be a District Judge if the Magistrates aren’t in charge or if there are less Magistrates. As soon as the witness gives evidence, they are then led back to the witness room by the Usher.
Defendants are able to ask permission to see their statements if they are panicking etc, and one witness comes in at a time and after all the prosecution witnesses; the defendant sits in the witness box to give evidence. The first Lawyer will question the defendant and the witness/witnesses and then the Lawyer from C.P.S (Citizen Protection Service) will ask the individual more questions, and then hand over the role to the Defendant Lawyer. This questioning is far more challenging as the Lawyer has been told different events by the defendant, with their own version of the event and they will try to discredit the witness’ evidence. The Magistrates or C.P.S may ask more questions and then send in for the witness. If the defendant has their own witness, then they will come into the court one by one as well, and once all the evidence is given, the Magistrates leave the room, talk about the evidence and if they need any assistance or legal advice, then the Court Clerk helps them and they then come to a decision of whether the defendant is guilty or not-guilty and re-enter the court. If the defendant is found guilty, then the Court Clerk will tell the Magistrates if the defendant has any previous convictions and if there is a criminal history, then that has an impact on the sentencing. If the defendant doesn’t have any previous convictions, then they don’t get sentenced on the day and ask the defendant to work with the Probation Service so they can prepare a report on the individual and understand why they have now started committing crimes. Then the defendant is told to come back in three weeks times to be sentenced.
By Florence Hake.