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Victims' Guide - The trial


How long will it take for the trial to happen after the defendant has been charged?

Every case is different and there is no single answer to this question. As soon as it has been decided that there will be a trial the court will list it for the earliest possible date. Some cases may be more straight forward whereas others will have a lot of evidence that needs to be prepared ahead of the trial.

Unfortunately, the court system is currently experiencing a backlog of cases. The courts are doing their best to work through this as quickly as possible but it may mean that the trial in your case may take some time to happen.

You have the right under the Victims' Code to be provided with information about the trial and your police contact will keep you up-to-date with what is happening.

We know how difficult it can be while you’re waiting for the trial to take place. Support is available for you throughout this process and you can decide to access it at any point. You can find more in our section What support is available to help you.

The first day of the trial

When you arrive at court, the security guards will show you to the Witness Service waiting room. If you’ve arranged with the Witness Service to enter the court through a private side entrance then you should follow the instructions they’ve given you.

The Witness Service is run by Citizens Advice volunteers. The volunteers can explain what will happen during the day and will keep you updated with the progress of the trial. Where possible the Witness Service will try to provide separate waiting areas for prosecution and defence witnesses. Please speak to your police contact or the Witness Service if you’re worried about seeing the defendant or anyone else at court.

Before the trial starts, someone from the prosecution team will introduce themselves to you and answer any questions you have about the process and what to expect. This could be a paralegal from the CPS, a CPS prosecutor or a prosecution barrister. The prosecutor at trial will usually be an independent barrister who will present your case on behalf of the CPS.

They will also explain what will happen in the court and confirm what special measures have been put into place for you. You can find out more in our section 'What support is available to help you give your evidence'.

They will also talk to you about the general nature of defence case. This means what the defence is likely to say about our account of the incident.

Who’s who in a courtroom

In a magistrates court the evidence is heard by a panel of magistrates or a district judge. They will make a decision on whether the defendant is ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not guilty’ and if they find the defendant ‘Guilty’ they will also decide on the sentence the defendant will receive.

In a Crown Court the evidence is heard by a judge and a jury. The jury is made up of 12 members of the public who are selected randomly from the electoral roll. In a Crown Court the jury decides whether the defendant is ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not guilty’. If the jury finds the defendant ‘Guilty’ the judge will then decide what sentence the defendant will receive.

If you’re giving evidence in court, you’ll stay in the waiting room until you’re called in. You won’t be able to watch the trial until after you’ve given your evidence.  

If you aren’t giving evidence in court, you’ll be allowed to sit in the public gallery to watch the trial. 

It’s likely that the defendant’s friends or family will be sitting in the public gallery too. If you don’t want to sit in the same place as them or be seen by them it may be possible to arrange for you to watch the trial from somewhere else in the courtroom with the judge’s permission. If this is the case, you can let the Witness Service know and they will help you to request this. 

The Courts Service (HMCTS) has put together a short explanation of who’s who in a magistrates' court and in a Crown Court.

The role of the defence barrister

The role of the defence barrister is different from the role of the prosecution barrister.

The role of the prosecution barrister is to prove, based on the evidence, that the defendant is guilty. By comparison the defence barrister doesn’t need to prove that the defendant is innocent. Their role is to highlight any problems or holes in the prosecution’s case to show the magistrates or the jury that they can’t be sure that the defendant is guilty.

The trial process

The prosecution barrister will open the case by setting out the charges against the defendant and the general facts of the case.

Sometimes the magistrates or the judge and the barristers may need to discuss some legal points before the trial gets going. This is normal, so don’t worry if you have to wait a bit longer than you expected for the trial to start. The Witness Service will keep you up to date with what is happening.

Your evidence

You are likely to be the main witness so you will probably be asked to give your evidence first.

How you give your evidence will depend on what special measures you have been granted by the court:

  • If you are giving evidence behind a screen, it will be ready for you before you come into court.  
  • If you are giving evidence from a TV link within the court building, the court usher will bring you to the room when it’s time for you to give your evidence.
  • If you are giving evidence from a location away from the court over a video link, the court clerk will digitally ‘invite’ you into the courtroom at the appropriate time. Someone from the court will be there to help you with this. 
  • If you need an interpreter, we will have arranged for one to be there for you.  

If your main evidence was video recorded, that will be played to the court first so that you don’t have to go through the whole incident in full again.

You may be asked some more questions by the CPS barrister to clarify your account and then the defence barrister will have an opportunity to ask you questions too - this is called cross-examination.

Then if they need to the CPS barrister will ask you some final questions - this is called re-examination.

Listen to all the questions carefully. You can ask for a question to be repeated and if you don’t understand a question you can ask for the barrister to rephrase it or explain it before you answer.

Some of the questions may be difficult to answer but just focus on telling the truth. If you don’t know the answer to a question or you can’t remember it’s okay to say that.

You can ask for a break at any time.

What you will be asked

It’s the role of the defence team to put forward the defendant’s version of events and to challenge what you say happened. This might be by saying that you are lying or that you are mistaken.

Some of the questions can be difficult but it’s important that you just focus on telling the truth. You should listen carefully to what the defence barrister is saying and clearly answer their questions. If you disagree with something they say then you should say that.

If it’s relevant to the case either the prosecution or the defence barrister might ask you about any contact you had with the defendant before and/or after the offence happened. This may include text messages or emails.

During the trial the judge will listen carefully to all the questions and if they decide a question is inappropriate they won’t allow it to be asked. If we think a question is inappropriate, we can also object and ask the judge to stop it being asked.

If you need to take a break at any time, you can ask the judge. This is okay and the court will understand you need to take a few minutes to yourself.

Other witnesses and the defendant’s evidence

After you’ve given your evidence we’ll then call a series of witnesses to give evidence.

These could include:

  • Eye-witnesses who saw something happen. 
  • Police officers who can describe the evidence they’ve found. 
  • Expert witnesses who will give evidence related to their area of expertise. For example, a doctor might give evidence about any injuries you had, or a toxicologist might give evidence about alcohol or drugs that were in your bloodstream.

Our prosecution barrister will ask the witnesses questions about the evidence that supports the case. Then the defence barrister will have an opportunity to ask them questions too - this is called cross-examination.

Once the prosecution barrister has called all their witnesses, the trial swaps over and the defence barrister will call their witnesses. The CPS prosecutor will have an opportunity to ask each of the defence witnesses questions in cross-examination.

The defendant does not have to give evidence and it’s quite common for a defendant to choose not to give evidence in court. If a defendant chooses not to give evidence we can’t cross-examine them.

However, the transcript of the interview the defendant gave at the police station will usually be read out to the court as part of the prosecution case. The court can then take into account what the defendant said when they were asked about the incident.

Once all the witnesses have given their evidence and been cross-examined, the CPS barrister will make a closing speech summing up all the key points of our evidence. The defence barrister will then make a closing speech pointing out where they think there are flaws in the prosecution case.

In a magistrates' court, the magistrates or district judge will then go into a private room to consider their evidence and decide their verdict.

In a Crown Court, the judge will sum up the key points of the evidence and will give ‘directions’ to the jury about the law. This means they will explain things like what the prosecution needs to have proved for the jury to find the defendant guilty. The jury will go into a private room to discuss the evidence and decide their verdict.

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