To say that appearing at court can be a daunting experience is an understatement, especially if you’re attending for the first time or for a particularly serious offence.
Whether you’re a victim, witness or defendant, there is a lot to consider if you want to show yourself in the best light and hopefully get the outcome you want, from how you should present yourself to what to say and when to ask for help. Below we offer 11 top tips for appearing at court, to help you understand what to expect and how you can prepare yourself.
Tip 1: Seek legal advice
If you are intending to represent yourself at court and feel completely overwhelmed and unprepared at the prospect, seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity. It can also be helpful to get legal advice if you are facing a severe sentence such as imprisonment, as a legal professional will look at your case, listen to your side of the story and be able to present your case favourably. If you have chosen not to use a legal advisor due to the fees involved it may be worth seeing if you are eligible for legal aid, or trying to see a legal professional or at least once to get advice on how to prepare. Some law firms, including our own, also provide legal clinics that offer free advice to members of the public, or your local Citizens Advice Bureau might also be able to give you some guidance. Do not expect the court staff or judge to give you an easier time if you are representing yourself; you will still be expected to have the information needed to prove your case and to be able to present it.
Tip 2: Read, absorb and action all correspondence
Make sure you have thoroughly read and understand any correspondence you have received regarding your court appearance, and take the letter informing you of your court appearance with you as the court reception will ask to see it. If you have received paperwork instructing you to attend court, do not put off acting on it. Equally, if you want to appeal a sentence take action now. By ignoring requests to attend court or failing to reply back to paperwork this could result in serious repercussions like a fine or facing arrest.
Tip 3: Knowledge is power
Try and gain as much of an understanding as you can about the full court process- will you have a hearing before your trial? How many people will be in the courtroom and where do they all sit? Will there be a jury? How does the prosecution reach a decision and how long does the process take? Remember that the prosecution has to follow the burden and standard of proof-this means that the prosecution has the burden of proving you are guilty and they have to prove it to a high standard. By developing an awareness of how the whole court procedure works you should feel more confident in your ability to cope with the process.
Tip 4: Be prepared
Make sure you’re aware of whether you will have a hearing before your trial and whether you are going to the magistrates’ court or Crown Court, and what the differences are between the two. Most criminal cases are heard in the magistrates’ court which are usually less formal than the Crown Court, for example the magistrates do not wear wigs and only the court ushers wear black gowns. If you need to provide any evidence for your case like receipts or photos put them in date order so it will be easier to place your hands on what you need when you need it. Also make notes on everything you want to communicate to the judge that you can check over in advance of going into court so you know you will cover everything you want to say. If you’re feeling really nervous about what attending court will be like, ask your local court if there is a hearing you can attend and sit in on as Crown Courts and magistrates courts often allow individuals to sit in the public gallery to watch criminal trials or sentencing hearings.
Tip 5: Know your rights
Whether you are attending court as a victim, witness to the prosecution or defendant, make sure you know what your rights are. For example, if you are a victim or witness you have the right to see the courtroom before the trial and are allowed to bring someone with you provided you let the Central Criminal Court or Old Bailey know in advance. You are also entitled to wait in a separate area of the court, away from other people involved in your case and to give your evidence as a written statement if you are concerned you will suffer intimidation from the defendant. If you are a defendant you have the right to have any unused evidence disclosed to you before the trial. You can also cross-examine any witnesses the prosecution has brought into court and you have the right to object to written statements being read out in court unless you or your solicitor have already been provided with copies.
Tip 6: Demonstrate punctuality
Make sure that you and any witnesses attend court on time (we would advise arriving about 30 minutes before your hearing is due to start) and look presentable; smart business attire like you would wear for a job interview is usually a good option. Once you arrive at court let the reception staff or court usher know and sign in. Before entering the courtroom make sure your mobile phone is turned off, and when you are sat in the courtroom sit up straight, try to look confident and keep body language calm and neutral.
Tip 7: Address everyone correctly
When the judge enters the room, stand up unless they tell you it is not required. Make sure you address people appropriately-in the magistrates’ court “sir/madam” and “you and your colleagues” are preferred, as is “the prosecution/counsel for the prosecution” for your opponent. Also make sure you are polite and show respect at all times and when it’s your turn to speak, talk directly to the judge rather than the person on the other side in the case and give brief, succinct answers. If you do not understand something the judge asks or do not hear the question fully, ask them to repeat it.
Tip 8: Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth
In court you will be asked to take the oath by swearing to tell the truth on the holy book of your religion or you can affirm, which is to promise to tell the truth without the use of a holy book. In England and Wales the law is based on the concept that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, so lying will do you no favours. Even if you feel the truth might not be on your side it is important that you are always being honest. Once you start lying it will be hard to stop and trying to sustain the lies will be both difficult and stressful.
Tip 9: Wait your turn
Always pay attention when another party is talking and do not react, even if you disagree with what is being said. Do not argue with the judge or other party; if you think your point has been misunderstood write down why and when it is your turn to speak you can explain it, or raise your hand so the judge knows you wish to speak. Also only answer the question that has been asked; although it might be tempting to try and explain yourself or go into detail about the situation, try and control your emotions and stay positive.
Tip 10: Ask for help if needed
If you are a victim or witness for the prosecution to a case, you will be assigned a witness care officer who will keep you updated about the court process and make sure you are getting all the advice and support you need. If you need any additional help in court such as an interpreter or closed circuit TV link then let your witness care officer know in advance of your court appearance. Also as the period between the offence and the court case can be quite lengthy, you can ask to see the original statement you gave to the police to refresh your memory. If you are in court for a long time you can also request a break.
Tip 11: Seek alternatives to attending court
Although this article provides tips for appearing at court, in some circumstances it is better to avoid it altogether, and we would never advise going to court if you are seeking revenge or spite. In the instance of a dispute with another party, see whether a decision can be reached or if Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is another option. Even as you are waiting to go into the courtroom, it might be worth trying to reach an agreement with people on the other side of your case. Having someone who is not emotionally involved in your case and can provide an independent view such as a legal professional can help, as they will be able to see whether you have a good case to take to court or whether it is in everyone’s interests to find another way to handle the situation.
If you’re preparing for an appearance at court and need some advice, contact our solicitors on 0800 0463066 or email firstname.lastname@example.org