What is a witness?

A witness is someone who can provide evidence relevant to a case being dealt with in court. In other words, they have seen, heard or otherwise observed something that may assist a court in deciding a case.

A witness might be called to court to give evidence in a range of cases, including civil, family and criminal cases. The information here deals with appearing as a witness in criminal cases, however, many of the general principles about appearing as a witness are the same, no matter what type of case it is.

How is a witness identified in criminal cases?

Usually, while police are investigating an alleged offence, they try to locate any witnesses who may be able to assist in their investigation and who may later be able to attend court to provide evidence about the offence.

Witnesses may also be located by the person charged with a criminal offence, to assist them in the presentation of their defence in court.

Do witnesses appear in court in every criminal case?

No, witnesses are generally only required to attend court if the person charged with the offence pleads not guilty and is going to a trial, or there needs to be a trial of the issues before sentencing. In these cases, there are facts that are in dispute and evidence, including evidence from witnesses, must be presented to the court so the court can reach a decision about those facts. In criminal cases, the evidence of witnesses can, therefore, assist a court in determining whether an accused is guilty or not guilty, or the facts on which they will be sentenced.

Do I have to attend court if I am a witness?

If you are a witness in a case, the prosecution or the defence (whichever one wants to call you to to give evidence) will usually issue a summons to require your attendance at court. The summons will state a date, time and place for your attendance.

Alternatively, you may simply be asked to attend court. This is more likely if you know the accused and are being called as a witness for the defence and the accused is confident you will attend court.