Attending the Court
What to expect
Letter requesting your availability
Witness Availability Letters
You may have received a letter from us asking you to give us information on your availability to attend court to give evidence. This is either because you could be cited to attend court to give evidence in a High Court case or because your details have been provided to us as someone who may need to give evidence in a possible Sheriff and Jury case. It is important that you provide us with the information we have asked for to allow the court to do its best to avoid setting dates for a trial which do not suit the witnesses. Please note however, it is not always possible for the court to set dates which suit all the witnesses in a case. If you do not provide us with your availability when requested we may need to ask the police to contact you directly for the information.
If you have any questions about the letter please contact us at 0844 561 3382 (from a landline) or 0141 849 5919 (from a mobile).
Called to give evidence
The letter that tells you where and when to go to court is called your citation. You may feel anxious about appearing in court but advice, assistance and support services are available for witnesses. Visits can sometimes be arranged in advance to help witnesses become more familiar with the courtroom. It is important not to ignore the citation. If you do not turn up at the correct time and place, the court can issue a warrant for your arrest.
Special arrangements can sometimes be made for elderly, disabled or vulnerable witnesses. You can contact the procurator fiscal who called you to give evidence if you have any questions, concerns or special requirements.
Arriving at court
On the day of the case, take your citation to the court and show it to the official at the reception desk. You will be directed to a waiting room for witnesses. It is a good idea to take something with you to pass the time, such as a book or magazine. A criminal trial may last all day or for more than one day. Sometimes, a trial will not go ahead because the accused has decided to plead guilty or perhaps because other witnesses are absent. A court officer will let you know about the progress of your case and either tell you when it is your turn to give evidence or let you know when you can go.
If you have been called to give evidence for a floating trial at the High Court – you will know if this is you because “floating trial” will be printed on the top right of your witness citation – the date and place of the trial may vary. You will be told of any changes as soon as possible.
When it is your turn to give evidence, a court official will call your name and show you to the witness box in the courtroom. Before you give evidence, the judge, sheriff, stipendiary magistrate or justice of the peace in charge of the proceedings will ask you to repeat a religious oath or promise to tell the truth. The court will take account of your religious beliefs.
In a criminal trial, the lawyers prosecuting and defending the accused will get a chance to ask you questions. The defence lawyers will have a copy of any statement you made to the police. The judge may also ask you questions. Occasionally, the accused can ask questions.
In giving evidence, listen carefully, take your time to answer and say if you do not understand the question or do not know the answer. Speak slowly and clearly. Witnesses must tell the truth at all times and may face criminal charges if they do not.
After giving evidence, you should not return to the witness room or discuss your evidence with other witnesses but you can stay and listen to the rest of the case.
People present in the courtroom
- the judge or sheriff
- the procurator fiscal or advocate depute
- defence lawyer(s)
- the clerk of court
- the court officer
- the accused
- court police or security officers.
Courts are generally open to the public. Members of the public over the age of 14 can sit in the public area of the courtroom to watch and listen to the witnesses and lawyers. However, in some cases, the courtroom will be closed to members of the public.
At the end of the court case
Three verdicts can be reached in a criminal case. Guilty means that the evidence has been enough to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. The judge will then decide any sentence or punishment. More information about how a judge decides a sentence and what sentences are available can be found on the Scottish Sentencing Council website.
Not proven and not guilty mean there was not enough evidence to prove the case or there were other special reasons why the accused was not found guilty. With both these verdicts, the accused is free to leave.
Using the form on the back of your citation, you can claim expenses for travelling to and from the court and an allowance for meals. Cash payments are only made in cases of genuine hardship or emergency. Exceptional costs such as taxi fares, air travel and overnight accommodation must by approved by the procurator fiscal in advance.
Claims can be made for loss of earnings for witnesses who are employed and self-employed. There are no childcare facilities at court buildings so prosecution witnesses can claim expenses for childcare and babysitting at fixed rates. If you need to organise care cover in your absence, you will be reimbursed at a fixed rate.
Disabled or elderly witnesses
Most courts provide facilities for elderly and disabled witnesses, for instance, to allow wheelchair access. Some have a loop system for people with hearing difficulties. If you have a disability or other needs, you should tell the procurator fiscal. If you are disabled or elderly and restricted in your movements, you can hire a taxi for your journey to and from court. You must agree this with the fiscal beforehand and keep receipts to claim back expenses.
Some witnesses might be particularly vulnerable because of their circumstances or the nature of their evidence. A witness who has a mental health condition, learning disability or is suffering fear and distress at the prospect of giving evidence might be considered vulnerable.
The COPFS Victim Information and Advice (VIA) service may be able to help vulnerable witnesses, for instance, in cases that involve domestic abuse, hate crime, and sexual crime. Bereaved relatives in deaths that may involve significant further inquiries or court proceedings may also be offered support. All children are considered vulnerable witnesses and cannot be named by the media when involved in criminal proceedings.
Some special measures can be taken to help vulnerable witnesses, including all children, such as giving evidence from behind a screen in the courtroom or by a television link, or having a support person with you in court. Witnesses may also need additional support if English is not their first language. A booklet explaining different ways to help a vulnerable witness give their evidence, using special measures, is available from the Scottish Government website.
Please do not hesitate to ask for help from VIA staff if you believe you may be a vulnerable witness.
For further information on VIA and our on-line leaflets please visit our Publications page.