One of the most difficult things about going to court for the first time is not knowing what to expect when you get there. You need to present yourself in a positive way to the Judge. The Judge will be making decisions about your future and things that are important to you such as: your freedom, where you live, your driver’s license and your money. Below you will find some basic court information that should be helpful in answering many of your questions.
Don't miss your court date
Do not miss a court date without being excused by the magistrate / judge, prosecutor or your lawyer in advance of your court date. For criminal cases, not appearing for court may result in the court issuing a penal summons or bench warrant for your arrest. You may also be held in contempt of court. If you are the respondent in a civil or traffic infraction, a default judgment may be ordered if you fail to appear. If you are the complainant and do not appear for court on your court date, your case may be dismissed.
Carry the proper documentation
During your court trial, you or your attorney will have the opportunity to explain the facts of your case to the judge. Make sure your paperwork is organized and that it supports your claim. Examples include receipts, contracts, letters, bills and photos.
While there is no written dress code for the courtrooms, certain attire is not considered suitable. This includes shorts, swimsuits, tank tops, and slippers. Non-prescription dark glasses and hats must be removed once you enter the courtrooms. You may also want to bring a light jacket or sweater as many of the courtrooms are air conditioned.
Proper conduct is also important
Smoking is not allowed in any public area of the court buildings. When court is in session, you should refrain from reading, talking, chewing gum, listening to personal radios, making distracting noises or any other inappropriate conduct. Please turn off your cellular phones and other electronic devices.
Court buildings have metal detectors and police security at their entrances
The purpose of the metal detectors is to provide protection for the public and court personnel. Any object which could be classified as a weapon, including pocketknives, cannot be brought into the building and will be confiscated by the police until you leave the building. Illegal weapons will be confiscated.
Talking to the Judge: In addition to what you wear, how you behave in front of the Judge matters.
- Stand up when you talk to the Judge
- Do not slouch or lounge in the chair
- Speak loud enough for the Judge to hear you
- Make eye contact with the Judge
- Do not mumble to the Judge or under your breath
- Do not say ‘Yeah’ ‘Nope’ or ‘Huh?’ Use appropriate words, like “Yes, You’re worship “ “ or “No, You’re Worship” , “Yes, Your Honour “ “ or “No, Your Honour”
- Never show anger in the courtroom, it does not help your position and can hurt your case instead. Let your lawyer do the arguing for you.
- Stay focused on what is happening in court.
- Be respectful towards everyone you meet in court – including police, judges, lawyers, and witnesses
Going to court as a witness
If you give evidence in court, you could stop innocent people from being convicted and help to make sure guilty people go to prison. As a witness, you're an important part of the justice system - without you, there may be no case.
Who can be a witness in court?
You may be asked to be a witness if you:
- are a victim of crime
- know something about a particular crime (eg, you saw it take place)
- have expert knowledge of a subject (called an 'expert witness')
- know one of the people involved in the case (called a 'character witness')
If you give a witness statement to the police, it may be some time before you know if you'll need to go to court. This is because legal cases can take a long time to prepare. If the case does go to court and your evidence is needed, you will be contacted.
If you have any questions before then, you should contact the police officer in charge of the case.
Where and when you need to give evidence?
Most cases are decided in a magistrates' court, by a district magistrate. Serious crimes get referred to the High Court for a trial by judge and jury. Before the trial begins, you will be told which court you should go to and when. If you are a defence witness, the defence lawyer will contact you. If you are a prosecution witnesses you will get a 'witness protection letter' from the police.
If you can't make the date of the trial
If you can't make the date of the trial, you should tell your witness care officer or the defence lawyer. You should do this right away, so that they can decide what to do.
Going to court as a defendant
If you have been charged with a crime and have to appear in court, it is important you understand what will happen during the trial and what will happen if you do not turn up on the day your case is heard.
Before going to court for your first hearing you have to decide whether you will plead 'guilty' or 'not guilty'.
At your first appearance in court, you will normally be asked to enter your plea. If you plead guilty, then the court will pass sentence. If you plead 'not guilty' a date for the trial will be set.
In a criminal trial, the prosecution lawyer presents the evidence against you. You or your lawyer will be able to challenge their evidence and present your defence against that evidence and the charges against you.
Before you give evidence to the court, you'll be asked to swear an oath on a holy book of your choice. If you prefer, you can choose to 'affirm' instead. An affirmation is a non-religious oath to tell the truth, and it is just as binding.
You may have to attend court several times, and it is important that you go to court every time your case is heard. If you need to leave court during the day of the trial, you must ask for permission in advance. It's unlikely that it will be granted.
In a Magistrate’s Court, the magistrate will decide whether or not you are guilty of the charge based on the evidence presented.
In a Crown Court, a jury made up of 12 people who represent the general public considers the evidence and decides on the verdict.
When the jury has heard all the evidence they will leave the courtroom, go to a private room and discuss the case until they can all agree on whether they think you are guilty or not guilty.
If they cannot agree, the judge can allow a majority verdict if 10 out of the 12 jurors agree. Once they’ve come to a decision, they will return to court, and one member of the jury, known as the foreman, will tell the court the jury's decision.
If you are found not guilty you are 'acquitted' and are free to leave. If you are found guilty, you will be sentenced to punishment by the judge.
If you are convicted (found guilty of the offence), you may be sentenced to prison, given a fine or given a sentence that is served in the community.
That decision could be taken when you plead or when the magistrate or jury finds you guilty. You may have to go back to court for sentencing at a later date. In that case, you could be remanded back to prison until that date, or you could be released on bail.
The court will often order a report to help them decide what sentence is most suitable for you. This process can take up to three weeks and is carried out by a probation officer who will meet you to assess your needs. It is in your interests to work with the officer.
If you decide to appeal against your conviction or sentence, your solicitor can advise you about what happens next.
If you don’t turn up to court
It is important that you turn up to court when your case is heard. If you think you will not be able to, tell your solicitor or the court as early as possible.
Failing to turn up (without a court-approved reason) is a crime.
If you do not turn up for your case, then:
- a warrant will be issued for your immediate arrest and you will be kept in custody to be brought back to the court
- your case can be heard without you there, and you will not have a chance to defend yourself
- you will be charged with the extra offence of ‘failing to appear’ (the maximum penalty for this in Crown Court cases is 12 months’ in prison even if you are not found guilty of the original charge against you)
- a conviction for ‘failing to appear’ will go on your criminal record and will influence any future decisions about whether you should be bailed
- you may be remanded in jail until your trial