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Thursday, 6 January 2011

Your rights and the justice system

At certain times in your life, you may come into contact with the justice system. The details here explain your rights and responsibilities, and where you can get further help and information.

If you witness a crime

How you can help

The information in the statement you give to the police is used to try and track down the people who committed the crime. Don't be concerned if you don't hear anything from the police for a while - it can take time to build a case and to collect evidence.

Giving evidence in court

If someone is charged with the crime, you may be asked to give evidence in court. If you feel nervous or have questions or want to look round court before the trial starts there is help and support available from the Witness Service, an organisation run by Victim Support. The Criminal Justice System (CJS) website also has information about what to expect, including an interactive tour of a court. There is further information in the Crime, Justice and the Law section of Directgov about being a witness and you can also watch a video that shows you what to expect in court. Follow the links below for more details.

If you're a victim of crime

Once you have reported your crime to the police, you have a right to be kept up to date on the progress of the case, and to be told about arrests and court cases. You should also receive: 

  • information about Victim Support and either be referred on to them or offered their service
  • clear information about compensation that may be available
  • a dedicated family liaison police officer if you have been bereaved by the crime

A guide published by the Home Office, called 'The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime', explains what victims can expect from the criminal justice system. You can download the guide using the link below.

There is further information in the Crime, Justice and the Law section of Directgov about support available to victims of crime. Follow the appropriate link below to get more information.

Jury service

You may be summoned for jury service if you’re aged between 18 and 70 - it is a service that all members of the public are expected to perform. Juries are usually used in trials for serious offences such as murder, assault, burglary or fraud, which are tried at Crown courts. Juries consider evidence and then reach a verdict of 'guilty' or 'not guilty'.

There is more information on what serving as a juror involves in the Crime, Justice and the Law section of Directgov. You can also watch an online video guide called, 'Your Role as a Juror'. Follow the links below for more details.

If you're a defendant in a criminal case

If you are charged with a criminal offence in England or Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) may decide to prosecute. Anyone who is arrested and held in custody, or who appears before a court can apply for free advice and assistance. In England and Wales this is managed by the Legal Services Commission and you apply to the Criminal Defence Service. The Scottish Legal Aid Board manages legal aid in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, legal aid is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission. Follow the links below for more information on each of these.

Legal advice and costs

You have a right to a fair trial and you should always take legal advice. At the end of the case, the trial judge can order you to pay back some or all of the costs of your defence.

Free legal representation is available if you pass the Interests of Justice test (sometimes referred to as a merits test) and a means test.

Civil disputes

Those disputes which don't involve the police are referred to as a 'civil law' issues rather than 'criminal law' issues. The most common issues within civil law relate to employment, housing, council tax and debt/credit, but there are many others that are also covered.

If you are involved in a civil dispute it is in everyone’s interests to try to keep the matter out of court as this can be expensive, time-consuming and often emotionally draining for those involved. Mediation or alternative dispute resolution, such as conciliation and arbitration, are recommended as the best ways to resolve civil disputes. However if they don’t work, you or the other person or party involved in the dispute may want to take it further by going to court.

Going to court

If you do end up in court, you have a responsibility to co-operate with the court to achieve the objective of a just and fair outcome. This means providing documentation and following procedures.

Dispute resolution or settling the case outside court remains an option right up to the beginning of a court case.

Legal costs

Free legal representation may be available in civil and family law cases, depending on the circumstances of the case and the individual. Financial assistance may cover all or only part of the cost of taking a case to court, depending on the circumstances. Community Legal Advice (a free and confidential service paid for by Legal Aid) or a solicitor can help you in assessing what financial assistance and legal help you may be entitled to.

If you do not qualify you may still be able to get legal advice from a solicitor working to a conditional fee – this is commonly known as ‘no win, no fee’. This usually means that you only pay the fees for the lawyers and the experts called if you win, and if you lose you pay nothing.

Find out more about mediation, or get advice from Community Legal Advice, by following the links below.

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