Being a witness in court

As a victim of serious crime, you might be called to be a witness at the defendant’s trial in court. This means you will be asked to tell the court what happened at the time of the crime.

You will get a letter called a summons. It will tell you when the court case will be held and where. Sometimes the trial date can be changed, so check with the officer in charge of the case ahead of time that it’s still on the same date as you have been told.

The Police Officer in charge or Court Victim Advisor will confirm when and where you will need to be at the court. They will also talk to you about what you need to do as a witness.

You can ask if it is possible to visit the court room ahead of time. Talk with your Support Worker or a Court Victim Advisor.

Witnesses can be paid for some of the costs of attending court to give evidence, such as travel costs or accommodation. These are covered by the police, and the police officer in charge of your case, Court Victim Advisor, or Victim Support Worker can explain how to claim these expenses.

Before the case happens, ask the officer in charge or your Court Victim Advisor if you:

  • would like to visit the court ahead of time, to look around and get an idea of where you’ll be sitting and what the court is like
  • want to get permission to have a support person with you, eg. a family member, close friend, or your Support Worker
  • need an interpreter because you want to speak Te Reo Māori or use New Zealand Sign Language when you give your evidence
  • would prefer not to give your evidence in the witness box, but in another way, such as from behind a screen, by closed circuit television, or a video link from somewhere else.

It’s helpful when you know a bit more about what to expect as a witness

You can talk to your Support Worker, to the prosecutor, or a Court Victim Advisor about any questions or concerns you have.

Spend some time remembering details of the crime: dates, times, how things looked, people you saw, or words or sounds you heard. Don’t talk about your evidence with anyone else. If you have written a Victim Impact Statement, read it to remind yourself of what you wrote.

Remember that your safety is always important. There is usually a separate waiting area for witnesses. If you feel concerned about your safety at court at any time, you can talk to a Court Security Officer, Police Officer, Court Victim Advisor, or Victim Support Worker. 

Arrive at the court room in good time. Ask a Court Victim Advisor or officer in charge where to wait.

A court officer will call your name in the place where you are waiting and then take you into the court room. If you have a support person, they will go with you.  You can’t enter the court room before this, so you don’t hear other witnesses giving their evidence.

You will be shown where to sit and be asked to promise to tell the truth in front of the court. You can choose to make a religious promise (an oath) or a non-religious promise (an affirmation). The registrar of the court organises this for you. It’s an offence to deliberately mislead the court while you are under oath.

As a witness you will be asked questions about what happened at the time of the crime, or anything you know about it. You will be asked questions by the defence lawyer, the prosecutor, and sometimes the judge. You don’t need a lawyer yourself. You just need to answer the questions as best you can.

The prosecutor will ask you to give evidence first. When the defence lawyer asks questions, it is called a cross-examination. If the prosecutor asks you more questions it is called a re-examination.

  • Remain as calm as possible – take some slow, deep breaths.
  • Take your time to answer – don’t rush.
  • Tell the truth – say if you don’t know an answer or just can’t remember.
  • Speak clearly.
  • Ask for questions to be repeated if you don’t understand them the first time.
  • Take it seriously – avoid joking about anything.
  •  Pause for a few moments and take some slow, deep breaths.
  •  Have a drink of water.
  • Ask for a short break if you need one. Allowing this, and how it is done, will be at the judge’s discretion.
  • Only continue giving evidence when you feel ready.

After you have given evidence, you will be told when you can leave by the judge. If you want to, you can stay in the court room.

Most court hearings in New Zealand are public and can be viewed by the public and reported on by the media. However, the court can help to protect your privacy in several ways.

  • Making sure the court doesn’t share your contact details in sensitive cases, unless the judge specifically allows this.
  • Making an Order for Name Suppression for victims of sexual violence and children, which means all information relating to your identity and contact details cannot be published.
  • Order everyone (except the parties to the case) to leave the court room and forbidding anyone to report on the case. The judge will do this at their own discretion if they believe the sensitive nature of the case requires complete privacy.  
  • Youth Courts are always closed, and the names of victims suppressed.
  • Coroners can decide that certain cases in the Coroners Court cannot be reported.

For tips on dealing with the media as a witness see Managing Media Interest or talk with your Support Worker.

Other useful websites and information

When the witness of a child or young person

Downloads

Your rights as a victim