Witness Summons: Can I be Ordered to Give Evidence as a Witness in a Criminal Trial?

If you are required to go to court and give evidence in a criminal trial, you may be served with a document called a witness summons (formerly known as a subpoena). If there is reason to believe you will not attend court voluntarily to give evidence, it is most likely you will be served with a witness summons.

What is a witness summons?

A witness summons is an official court document which tells you that you must go to court at a given date at a given location of the court to give evidence. It may request that you produce specific documents on any date except the date fixed for the trial – or it may request you to produce documents and attend to give evidence.

Is it illegal to ignore a witness summons? Could I be arrested?

If you fail to appear in court when required, you could receive a penalty. More seriously, a warrant can be issued for your arrest, and you could be brought to court. Likewise, if you fail to bring documents to the court as requested, the courts have the power to issue a warrant for your arrest and bring you to the courts with the required documentation.

However, a warrant for your arrest can only be obtained if the Court hears evidence on oath, and it is satisfied you are likely to have material evidence, documentation, etc, which would assist at a trial. In addition, the court must be satisfied that issuing an arrest warrant is in the interests of justice to ensure you attend trial to give evidence (or produce the document), and that a warrant for your arrest is necessary because a court summons alone is unlikely to be sufficient to ensure you attend trial.

Because of the risks of arrest, it is vital you read the witness summons documentation carefully, and do what it requests you to do at the time required. You may need to tell your employer, or anyone else as appropriate, that you are required at court on a given day.

How can I cope with going to court as a witness?

It is likely that your temptation to simply not turn up to give evidence in response to a witness summons is down to unanswered questions, and the practical and logistical issues involved. For instance, you may be concerned about taking time off work, you may have childcare issues to deal with, or you may have medical problems. You may even be worried about your safety as a witness.

However, the criminal justice system is sympathetic to the problems witnesses experience. There are various services that have been established to help witnesses who are required in court. The Witness Care Unit, for instance, will contact you to discuss any questions or needs you may have.

The Witness Care Unit manages the care of both victims and witnesses right through to the conclusion of a case. You can discuss any worries with this organisation and they will provide you with all the answers you need.

In addition, there is the ‘Witness Charter’ which explains how you can expect to be treated as a witness giving evidence in a criminal court. You can talk about any complaints or concerns about your treatment with your witness care officer who will be assigned to you by the Witness Care Unit.

There is also the Witness Service – an independent registered charity based at the courts which offers free confidential advice and support for witnesses.

Can I claim any expenses?

Yes, if you have to take any time off work, and if you may have to pay for child care, the Witness Care Unit will explain your options. It is usually the case that expenses for attending court will be paid following the trial. If you need help before the trial, the Witness Care Unit will try and accommodate as best as they can.

How should I prepare?

You will be able to review your written or video statement to refresh your memory to enable you to give the best evidence possible in court. If you are not given the chance to do so, then speak to the Crown Prosecution Service and ask to review it.

Importantly, the Witness Care Unit will help you prepare for giving evidence for instance, visiting the court to get used to the court environment.

If you are concerned at the prospect of seeing the defendant or other potential witnesses, alternative arrangements may be possible, for instance, positioning you in the court room in such a way that you cannot be seen.

Before you give evidence, those on hand to help you as a witness can explain the process to you. This includes whether you want to give the oath or an affirmation before giving evidence, and how proceedings will progress.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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