The information provided below is of a general nature only and may not apply to all persons in all situations. If you are involved in a legal process or have any further queries you should obtain appropriate legal advice.
Making a statement to police
It is often a difficult step to take to report a crime and the decision is completely yours. If you do decide to report a crime and go to the police this is called making a statement. You then become a witness.
- You can take a friend, relation or community worker with you when you go to the police. They can stay with you the whole time even while you are making your statement.
- If you are under 17 an adult must be present while you give your statement.
- If English is not your first language you can ask to have an interpreter to help you.
- The police have to give you written information about organisations that might be able to give you some help and information about the law and what might happen in Court.
- You can have your statement tape recorded instead of being written down if you prefer. This may not always be possible however depending on the resources of the police station where you report the crime.
- You should receive a copy of your statement or tape of interview when you leave the police station.
- You can make a statement of ‘no further action’. This means that you have told the police and they have recorded it, but that you don’t want anything else to happen.
- If the police decide not to investigate your case, or charge the offender, you can ask them for the reasons why in writing.
- If you still don’t feel sure about what the police have decided, you can talk to a lawyer at the Department of Public Prosecutions. They can have a look at your case for you.
- When you go to Court you can take the statement you made at the police station with you if you need to remind yourself of what happened.
Supporting yourself through the court process
Going to Court is a stressful experience for everyone. Everyone feels nervous or worried; it is a very natural way to feel.
- You might need to talk to someone about what is happening both before and after your case. This may be family members, friends or community workers.
- It might help to get support both on the day and during the period leading up to your case. Sometimes it helps to have someone you know at Court with you on the day of your case. Or you might just need to talk about it with people who are close to you.
- If you don’t think that you can get support from your family or friends, there are a range of services you can contact to ask for help. (See Contacts section).
- Everyone who goes to Court responds in a different way to the pressures it might put them under. Everyone has different ways of coping with that sort of pressure. Whatever your way, make sure it’s right for you. Remember there is no wrong or right way to feel in this situation.
Court location and getting there
It helps to know exactly where the Court is. Knowing where the Court is, what time the hearing is on and how you are going to get there, may help you feel more comfortable about going to Court.
- Street directories have a list of all Courts in Melbourne and all public transport routes. It might help to work out where the Court is and how you are going to get there before your hearing date.
- Courts give you a travelling allowance to help you get to the hearing. You should receive this travel allowance when you receive your summons from the police.
Your appearance as a witness
- Body language does play a part in the impression you give the Court. It helps to try and look calm and confident even if you feel nervous.
- Some ways to look confident may be to stand straight, keep your head high and make eye contact with the judge or Magistrate involved in your case.
- Another way to look confident is to remind yourself of what an important person you are, and to remind yourself of the things you are good at.
- Above all, it is important for you to be as natural as possible and not to be discouraged if you do get emotional. Lots of people who go to Court find it a stressful experience.
- If you do see people who are likely to distress you, either in the Courtroom or outside, be aware of where they are and remember that you do not have to make eye contact with them. You could ask to wait in a separate area of the Court.
- If you are questioned in the witness box, it might be a good idea to find a place in the room to focus on to help you feel more comfortable.
- Lawyers, especially those representing the defence, might try to trick you and put you off your guard. Try your best not to let this behaviour affect you. It might help you to simply focus on yourself, your statement and how you are feeling. You don’t have to worry about what anyone else is doing.
- As Courts are seen to be serious places, it helps to make sure that you look neat and tidy. You may want to wear something formal but make sure you feel comfortable and at ease in what you wear.
Going to court
Even though the crime may have affected you, it is the police who investigate your case and prosecute the offender, while you become a witness for the prosecution in the case. Because of this you do not have your own lawyer.
- If the police charge the offender, and he or she pleads ‘not guilty’, you will probably be required to go to Court to tell your side of the story about the incident.
- If you have to go to Court as a witness, you will receive a summons in the mail or a police officer will come to your home and give you the summons.
- If you are appearing as a witness, the police officer working on the case will be able to let you know what is happening. If there is anything unclear about the case asking the police officer responsible for the investigation is the first place to go. Alternatively, you can ring a community legal centre to ask them questions about the court process.
- The Department of Public Prosecutions will also give you written information about your rights as a witness.
- It helps to read the summons and any other information which comes with it carefully. The date of the hearing and the address of the Court will be on the summons.
- If you are working you can ask for compensation of wages or income you lost due to having to go to Court.
The court system
There are several different Courts in the Australian legal system. The nature of the crime that the offender has been charged with will determine which Court hears the case. In Victoria there are four types of Courts that it would be useful for you to know about.
- Children’s Court. This Court is like a Magistrate’s Court but it is for people under 17 who have been charged with a crime.
- Magistrates Court. A Magistrate alone hears cases about crimes which are less serious than in other Courts. Cases in this Court are called hearings. In these cases the Magistrate makes decisions about the facts and the law related to the case.
- County Court. A Judge and jury hear cases about more serious crimes which are too serious to be heard in the Magistrate’s Court. Cases in this Court and the Supreme Court are called trials. In both of these Courts the jury decides whether the offender is guilty or not guilty, based on the facts of the case. The Judge is in charge of the Court. She or he tells the jury about the law affecting the case.
- Supreme Court. A Judge and jury hear very serious cases like murder. Cases in this Court are called trials.
When you get to Court you can tell the Prosecutor that you have arrived. Most courts have an enquiry counter where you can go to ask where the Courtroom is that will hear your case. There is generally a list of Courts and which cases are being heard, placed near the Court entry.
Courts can be scary places. It might be an idea to visit the court where your case will be heard before the date so you are more familiar with the way it looks.
There are very specific places where all the people involved in your case have to sit. For example, the Magistrate or the judge will be sitting at the head of the room at a higher level behind a large desk. In front of them is the Clerk of Courts, (in the Magistrate’s Court) or the Judge’s Associate (in other courts). These people are there to help the Magistrate or the judge with the proceedings. In the County and Supreme Courts, there is also another person called the Tipstaff. The Tipstaff shows people to and from the witness box. Facing the Magistrate/Judge is a desk where the lawyers for the prosecution and the defence sit. Members of the public and the offender, if he or she is not in custody, sit behind the long table. If the defendant is in custody, he or she will sit in a separate area. This could be either at the back or the side of the Courtroom and they will be looked after either by a police or prison officer.
There is a witness box in all Courts. In the Magistrate’s Court the witness box is at the head of the room, usually to the left of the big desk.
When you enter a Court where there is a case being heard, you must bow to the judge or Magistrate before you take a seat.
The Clerk of Courts or Tipstaff asks everyone in the room to rise as the Magistrate/judge enters the room. Then the Magistrate/ Judge either nods their head or the Tipstaff/Clerk will ask everyone to sit down.
If your case is in the Magistrate’s Court, the Magistrate is called ‘Your Worship’. Judges in all other courts are called ‘Your Honour’.
Courtrooms are full of ceremony and are seen as serious places, therefore it is important to be quiet and respectful when there is a case being heard.
It is very common for all the witnesses in a case to be asked to leave the Court until it is their turn to give evidence. If there is no order like this made, then you can stay in Court and listen to the case. Witnesses for the prosecution give their evidence first. Then witnesses for the defence.
- When you have to give evidence your name will be called.
- You will have to stand in the witness box and answer questions. Before you can be questioned you can either swear on a religious book (the Bible, Old Testament, or Koran) or make an affirmation. If you make an affirmation you swear on your name that what you are saying in Court is true.
- You must repeat the words that the Clerk of Courts says. They will simply be saying that what you are about to say (the evidence) is true.
- This is so that you understand that you must tell the truth and are promising the Court that you will tell the truth.
- If you don’t tell the truth you are committing a criminal offence. This is called lying on oath.
- Before you tell your story you will be asked to tell the Court your name, address and occupation. If for safety reasons you are concerned about giving out this information, speak to the officer involved in your case. In some circumstances exceptions can be made.
- The police or Prosecutor may then ask you questions relating to the statement you have given them.
- The offender’s lawyer may then ask you questions. This is called cross-examination. It is meant to put forward the other side’s case by showing any differences in your story, and make you look like a less believable witness.
- The role of the Magistrate or judge is to not allow the defence lawyer to ask inappropriate questions of you.
- You can be asked questions by the prosecution, the Magistrate/ judge or the defence lawyer.
- The defence lawyer will try to confuse you and make you look like you are not telling the truth or you can’t remember what happened. They may ask questions that will anger or embarrass you. Try not to feel upset by how they are making you feel. Everyone finds this part of the court process difficult.
- It might help you to speak slowly and clearly. Try not to get flustered by questions that are meant to make you feel confused. It might also be helpful to concentrate on listening to the question. If you do not understand a question ask the lawyer to repeat it. Take as much time as you need to answer questions.
- You can always ask to sit down and have a rest for a few minutes, or ask for a drink of water if you are getting tired.
- However horrible the question is, it can be useful to remind yourself that it is just a lawyer’s tactic and then try to answer the question calmly.
- It might help to think about some of the difficult questions you may be asked and prepare yourself before your hearing. Your family, friends or a community worker may be able to help you with this.
- If you are finding the questioning too upsetting or difficult, you can ask the Magistrate/Judge for a break.
Hearing the verdict is the last part of your case. Depending on the decision which has been made it could be a good or a disappointing outcome for you. It might help to try and think about the outcome and how it might affect you before the time comes.
- If your case is in the Magistrates Court, the Magistrate will announce the verdict and the sentencing terms.
- At the County Court, if a Jury has not been used, then the Judge will announce the verdict and the sentencing terms. If a jury has been used, then a member of the jury will read out the verdict and the judge will speak to the Court.
- In some cases the judge will set another court date to pass sentence on the offender.
- The Magistrate or judge may talk to the Court about their views regarding the case.
- After the verdict is announced you are free to leave the Courtroom. If you feel you didn’t understand everything, or are confused about what happened, you can talk to the officer involved in your case. If they look like they are too busy at the end of the case you can make another time to talk with them.
- Hearing the verdict may be stressful and you might need to talk to a friend, a family member or a community worker afterwards.
- Defence: The lawyers who represent the offender.
- Lawyer: Someone who has studied law at University and has been admitted to practice as a solicitor and barrister of the Supreme Court. Department of Public Prosecutions: This office appoints a lawyer (known as a Public Prosecutor) to act for the State.
- Prosecution: The lawyers or Police Prosecutor who represent the state against who the crime has been committed.
- Offender: The person charged with committing a crime. Solicitor.. A lawyer.
- Summons: A legal document which tells a person that they are required to go to court.
- Witness: A person who gives evidence of facts which they have seen and heard.
- Conduct money: Money given to a witness to help them get to Court. This money is given to the witness with the summons.
- Community Legal Centre: Community legal centres can give you free legal advice and referral to other organisations. It is best to give them a call to check whether you need to make an appointment or not.
Information on this page is based on a booklet by Melissa Pearson and Women’s Legal Resource Group, 1997.