Courts are divided into Magistrates Courts and Crown Courts. All cases will initially be heard in the local Magistrates Court and, dependent on the type and seriousness of the matter before the court, a decision will be made as to whether the case can remain in the Magistrate Court or should be transferred to Crown or High Court – this applies to criminal and family law.
Standards of proof are different dependent on whether you are in a criminal court or family court:
- Criminal court – standard of proof is that the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt, with the burden of proving this being on the prosecution
- Family court – the standard of proof is the balance of probability. For example, in an application for a care order the local authority must prove that, on the balance of probability, the parent / carer breached their duty of care for the child causing them significant harm.
Being a witness
If you are called to give evidence in court as a professional involved with a child or family, you should seek advice and support from both your line manager and where necessary your agency’s legal team.
If it is the first time that you have been to court, arrive early and ask whether you can be shown the layout of the court so that you can get your bearings. If you are nervous about giving evidence then you can ask for a colleague or manager to support you, however only you will be allowed in the witness box.
If you are called to give evidence the following will happen:
- You will be shown to the witness box
- You should stand up, unless you find standing difficult in which case you can ask the judge or magistrate if you can sit down
- You will be asked to take an oath or affirm that you will tell the truth. This will be in line with your religious beliefs
- Whoever has asked you to attend court will ask questions first with the other parties asking questions afterwards.
The Crown Prosecution Service give the following things to remember:
- It is not personal – invariably the lawyers will be trying to make sure you have not made a mistake
- You are not on trial – if the questions become too aggressive the lawyer who asked you to give evidence has a right to ask for questions to be changed
Good court etiquette is that you face the magistrates or the judge when giving the answers to the questions you have been asked.
Once you have given your evidence, the court will tell you that you may leave the witness box. You may be told that you are released, this means that you can leave. You may be asked to stay after you have given evidence if something new comes up.