How to be a witness in court
The Criminal Courts in Hong Kong
The criminal courts in Hong Kong comprise Magistrates' Courts, Juvenile Courts, District Courts and Court of First Instance of High Courts. The jurisdiction of criminal courts varies with regard to the age of offenders appearing before them, to the gravity of the offences that they are permitted to try, and to the severity of the sentence they may impose.
What happens in Courts
Most criminal trials take place in a Magistrate's Court. The Magistrate listens to all the evidence and decides whether the person accused of the crime (the defendant) is guilty or not. Defendants under the age of 16 will be tried in Juvenile Courts by a Magistrate. If the defendant is found guilty, the Magistrate decides on the sentence. The more complicated or serious cases are dealt with in the District Courts and the Court of First Instance of High Courts. A District Court is presided over by a Judge and a Court of First Instance of High Courts is presided over by a Judge sitting with a jury of at least seven persons (who are ordinary members of the public). There will be a prosecutor who is appointed by the Secretary for Justice to argue for the prosecution, and there may be one or more lawyers who argue for the defendant unless he is representing himself.
How to dress
To show respect to the court, you should be neatly attired. For male witness, shirt preferably with tie or "polo" shirt and long trousers are expected while plain or conservative-patterned shirt or blouse with skirt or long trouser are expected for female witness.
What language to use
Chinese and English are the predominant languages used in the criminal courts. However, you may use other languages which you feel comfortable to give evidence. Interpreters will be provided if you are not familiar with either Chinese or English.
Where does everyone sit
The picture shows a typical Magistrate's Court. The Magistrate sits behind a raised bench and the witness box is usually to one side (left or right), near the front of the court. The defendant will also be present in court and you may be called upon to identify him. In the District Courts and Court of First Instance of High Courts, lawyers and Judges wear gown and wigs. There is an area for the jury to sit in the Court of First Instance of High Courts.
When you arrive at court
When you arrive at court, report to the prosecutor or his assistant, give them your name and show them your witness summons. They will tell you where to wait. If you are not sure in which court your case is to be heard, you should go to the enquiry counter in the court building for assistance. In a Magistracy building the staff in the Police General Office should be able to assist you.
Before you are called
While you are waiting to be called to testify, you should not talk to anyone about the evidence you will be giving. Do not leave the court building until you are told that you are no longer needed. If you have an important reason to leave early, tell the prosecutor or his assistant before the case starts. It may be possible for you to give evidence out of turn.
Some cases are delayed or even put off until another date. This may be because an earlier case has gone on longer than expected or an important witness in the case has not arrived. Sometimes a defendant pleads guilty on the day of the trial so witnesses are told at the last minute that their evidence is not needed.
When you give evidence
As you are called into the court you will be shown to the witness box by the court clerk. He will ask you whether you wish to take the oath or to affirm. To take the oath is to swear to tell the truth on the Bible. To affirm is to solemnly promise to tell the truth. You should remain standing when giving evidence unless you are told otherwise by the Magistrate or Judge.
As a witness for the prosecution, you will be asked questions by the prosecutor first. Then the defence will ask some questions, this is called cross-examination. If the defence is represented by more than one lawyer, all of them can ask questions in turn. When the cross-examination has finished, the prosecutor may ask you a few more questions. A Magistrate or Judge may also ask you questions at any stage.
After you have finished giving evidence you may be told that you are released. This means that you are free to leave but you can stay and listen to the rest of the case if you want to. You should not discuss your evidence with another witness who has not given his evidence.
Sometimes you might have to stay after you have given evidence. This usually only happens when something new has come up while you are giving evidence.
Vulnerable witnesses including children, the mentally incapacitated and witnesses in fear may give evidence via a video link television system.
Interference with Witness
It is an offence to threaten or persuade a witness to omit, change or falsely give evidence. If at any stage you are so approached you should report the matter immediately to the police.
You are entitled to claim a witness allowance for expenses incurred related to your appearance in court. The allowance is set at a fixed rate and is approved by the presiding Magistrate or Judge. You should request the prosecutor to apply on your behalf.
For your time and trouble.
This leaflet is for general reference only. It should not be taken as a legal directive. If you have queries, you should consult professional advice.