What is the role of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)?
The CPS is an organisation totally independent of the police. It is made up of qualified and experienced practitioners of criminal law supported by administrative staff. The CPS advise the police on the gathering of evidence in serious cases and review evidence presented to them by the police. The CPS apply a twofold test, namely: is there sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction and also is it in the public interest to proescute. If so then the CPS will, in serious cases, authorise the Police to charge and will then undertake that prosecution in the courts.
Where will the case be heard?
This depends on the offence. Less serious sexual assaults may be tried at Magistrates Court where the evidence is presented by solicitors in normal clothes. Magistrates are volunteer members of the public who are advised by a legally qualified Clerk. The Magistrates decide whether the defendant is guilty and they pass sentence. Their sentencing powers are limited to fines and short prison sentences.
More serious offences such as rape can only be tried at Crown Court, where barristers dressed in wigs and gowns present the evidence to a jury, presided over by a judge. The jury decide on guilt and the judge decides on the sentence. For rape the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
Does anything happen before the trial?
The police will make sure you know as much as possible about what is happening, as will your Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) or Victim Support volunteer if applicable. In some cases the CPS may arrange a pre-trial interview with you to make sure that you know what to expect when you give your evidence but this has to fall short of coaching you in giving your evidence for obvious reasons of fairness.
How do I get there?
Magistrates Courts are located at Leamington Spa, Nuneaton and Coventry. There are Crown Courts in Leamington Spa and in Coventry. Details are in the links section of this website. Occasionally for a variety of reasons Crown Court cases may be heard elsewhere, such as Birmingham or Wolverhampton. You will be given every assistance in getting there by the police, witness support and liaison staff and your ISVA, if you have one.
What time do I need to be there?
Courts usually start proceedings at either 9.30am or 10am. You will be made aware of the time that you need to be there. If you are giving evidence you may only need to attend on a certain day or part of a day and it would be your choice whether you attended court before or after that.
How long will the trial last?
This will depend on whether the accused pleads ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. If a guilty plea is entered then no trial follows but there may be short speeches made by the prosecution and defence concerning the sentence and the case may be adjourned for various reports before a sentence is passed. If ‘not guilty’ then a date will be set for a trial and the delay before this and the length of the trial will depend on the complexity of the case and the number of witnesses to be called to give evidence. The evidence of some witnesses can be read out to the court in their absence if it is accepted by both sides. All other witnesses give their evidence in person from the witness box in court after taking an oath (or ‘affirmation’ if they are not religious) and are then ‘cross-examined’ by either barrister on what they have said. A rape trial would usually last for at least a few days.
How do I get a barrister?
You don’t need to. The prosecution barrister is arranged, briefed and paid for by the Crown Prosecution Service. He or she represents The Crown rather than you directly but is acting to secure a conviction of the accused.
How do I give my evidence?
The usual way is to stand in the witness box in full view of the court, take an oath (or ‘affirmation’) that you are telling the truth and answer questions put to you first by the prosecution barrister and then the defence. The prosecution can then put further questions to you to correct any uncertainty that might have been created by the defence questioning. If you are feeling worried or vulnerable about confronting the defendant the court can be asked to consider allowing ‘special measures’ to be used to reduce that anxiety. That might include giving your evidence from behind a screen so that the defendant or the public can’t see you or from another room via a video link. You would be seen on a screen in the courtroom by the parties concerned and will see on a screen in the room where you are the face of the person asking you questions. If you are behind a screen it is still important that the barristers, judge and jury see you so that they can weigh up the truthfulness of the evidence that you are giving.
Who can come with me?
Trials are usually held in public so anyone can enter a public gallery depending on available space. You will be able to bring your family and friends with you as well as an ISVA if you have one. Dedicated court staff will be on hand to help victims and there are private waiting areas so that you don’t have to bump into the offender or his family or friends.
What happens in a trial?
A jury is ‘sworn in’ and the charges are read out to the defendant who pleads ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. Sometimes the defendant may plead guilty despite earlier having done the opposite. It is not unheard of for a defendant to wait and see if the victim and prosecution witnesses turn up on the day and then, if they do, plead guilty to reduce their sentence. Or the defendant might plead guilty to some of the charges against them.
The prosecuting barrister makes a speech to the jury outlining the case and then calls witnesses to give their evidence in person or reads out the statements of witnesses that are not disputed. Each witness who gives their evidence in person will then be cross examined by the defence barrister. Any CCTV footage or recordings of police interviews will be played to the court. As the victim it is quite likely that you will be the first prosecution witness as the other prosecution witnesses will be providing supporting evidence to what you have said.
Following the prosecution case it is the turn of the defence to call any witnesses who they consider support their case. Sometimes the defendant will give evidence himself but not always. After the defence barrister has asked their questions the prosecuting barrister can cross-examine those witnesses.
After all witnesses have given their evidence the Prosecution makes a speech to the jury summarising the main points in their case, followed by the defence who do the same. The judge then sums up for the jury , the key evidence and advises them on the law and the weight they should attach to particular aspects of the evidence. The jury then retire and consider whether the defendant is guilty or not of the various charges against him.
In the event of being found not guilty on all charges the defendant is released without any further action. If he is found guilty on any charge the judge will then pass a sentence, although this may be delayed pending the preparation of reports about his character or circumstances.
What type of questions will I be asked?
All questions should be relevant to the case and put to you fairly. Barristers are not allowed to trick you into saying something that you didn’t mean but they are allowed to be fairly robust in challenging your evidence on behalf of their client, the defendant. It is their job to put as much doubt in the minds of the jury as they can and it is not a sign that they don’t believe you or that they don’t like you. They are only allowed to ask questions about your sexual history with the permission of the judge and only when this is relevant and necessary in order to give the defendant a fair trial. The judge is there to ensure fairness and will not allow you to be bullied or tricked.
What sentence will the attacker get?
The maximum sentence for rape and assault by penetration is life imprisonment and in some cases the offender will receive that sentence. The judge has to abide by laid down sentencing guidelines which take into account the circumstances of each case, the offender’s previous convictions, age, circumstances and whether there are any particular aggravating factors (such as the use of weapons, degree of violence, imprisonment etc). Most rapists are likely to receive a substantial prison sentence of a number of years rather than months.
What happens next?
In some circumstances appeals can be lodged, either by the defendant against the conviction or sentence or by the prosecution if the sentence is thought to be too lenient. The prosecution cannot appeal against a conviction but if fresh evidence comes to light another investigation or trial is possible.
You may be awarded compensation by the court or may be able to apply for compensation to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Your ISVA, Victim Support or police contact can help you with this.