3 - My rights during the trial

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Where will the trial be held?

All criminal cases start in the Magistrates’ Court. There are three possible ways the case may then proceed. For minor (“summary”) offences the whole trial must be conducted in the Magistrates’ Court by a District Judge. For more serious offences the trial will eventually be conducted in the Crown Court by a judge and jury of 12 people. Some offences can be tried in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. Trials held in the Crown Court are called trials “on indictment”; that is the name of the formal document detailing the charges that you face. All trials are held in public.

If you are under 18, unless the offence charged is very serious, the trial will be in a Youth Court which is a special Magistrates’ Court with one District Judge sitting with two lay persons trained to deal with cases involving young people. The public will not be allowed into the court.

Can the charges be changed during the trial?

Generally the charges cannot be changed during the trial. The prosecutor may, however, depending on the course of the evidence, agree to accept your plea of guilty to a less serious crime than the one you have been charged with.

Do I have to be present at the trial?

If you have been released on bail it is a criminal offence not to attend court when required. In the Crown Court the trial cannot normally be held without you being present. However, in very exceptional circumstances, if you disrupt the proceedings or abscond during the trial, a trial can go ahead without you at the judge’s discretion.

If you fail to attend for trial in the Magistrates’ Court, there are limited circumstances in which the Court may proceed to find you guilty in your absence. For some minor cases in the Magistrates’ Court, you can plead guilty by post.

Will I have an interpreter if I do not understand what is happening?

The court proceedings will be held in the English language. If you do not understand English the court will provide an interpreter for you.

Will I have a lawyer?

You are entitled to have a lawyer represent your case at the trial. The lawyer will also question any prosecution witnesses on your behalf (see Link opens in new windowFactsheet 1 for information on how to obtain a lawyer).

Do I need to give evidence at the trial?

You can give evidence at the trial but cannot be made to do so. Your lawyer will advise whether you should. If you refuse to give evidence without good reason (e.g. mental illness) that may count against you but you cannot be convicted solely because you remained silent at trial. If you do give evidence, the prosecution has the right to cross examine you.

What are my rights in relation to the evidence against me?

All evidence on which the prosecution intends to rely must be disclosed to your lawyer before the trial. That gives you advance notice of the case against you and gives your lawyer the opportunity to prepare to challenge it. If you dispute the evidence of a witness, then the witness will normally be required to attend court to give the evidence orally.

A witness who gives evidence against you can then be cross-examined by your lawyer to challenge their account. A statement of evidence can be read to the Court if you do not dispute it.

Can I produce evidence on my behalf?

You can give oral evidence yourself. You can also ask witnesses to give evidence for you. Your witnesses will be led through their evidence by your lawyer and can then be cross-examined by the prosecution lawyer. You also have the right to produce other evidence for your defence, for example documentary evidence.

Will information about my criminal record be taken into account?

Before the trial the prosecutor will gather information about your criminal record. This may include your previous convictions in another Member State. In certain situations the information will be revealed to the court, but your lawyer will be able to challenge whether that should happen. Even if your criminal record is taken into account by the court, you will not be convicted simply because you have a criminal record.

What happens at the end of the trial?

After all the evidence has been given, the decision (called “a verdict”) is made on whether you are guilty or not guilty. In the Magistrates’ Court, the District Judge decides on the verdict. In the Crown Court the jury alone will decide the verdict.

If the verdict is not guilty (you are “acquitted”), the case against you ends. If the verdict is guilty (you are “convicted”) the judge will pass a sentence on you. In serious cases there will be a separate court hearing for sentencing.

What sentence will I receive?

The sentence will depend on the seriousness of the crime. For serious offences you may be sent to prison. The judge must tell you how long you will stay in prison. The judge will follow established rules and guidelines in deciding on the sentence. Any time you have already spent in prison awaiting trial will be deducted from the period of imprisonment imposed.

In certain cases, the judge may “suspend” the sentence of imprisonment, which means that it will only be enforced if you commit another crime within the period specified by the judge. Other possible sentences include fines and community-based sentences (for example, placing you under the supervision of a probation officer or requiring you to do unpaid work in the community).

What is the role of the victim during the trial?

The victim is not a party to the proceedings against you, but will usually be called as a witness for the prosecution. When you are being sentenced, the prosecutor may bring to the Court’s attention the impact that the offence has had on the victim.

Related links

Link opens in new windowGovernment website NI - “Going to Court”

Link opens in new windowYouth Justice Agency - “Going to Court”

Link opens in new windowDetails of each individual courthouse in Northern Ireland

Link opens in new windowA useful website for the families of those who are held in prison is NIACRO

Link opens in new windowA useful website for general information on crime, justice and the law in Northern Ireland

Link opens in new windowA guide to life in prison and helpful resources for prisoners

Link opens in new windowMagistrates' Court (Northern Ireland) Order 1981

Criminal Justice (Evidence) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004

Link opens in new windowCriminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996

Link opens in new windowCriminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1999

Link opens in new windowJudicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978

Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998

Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1996

Link opens in new windowCriminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008


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Last update: 25/02/2019