What happens if I have to go to court?
From finding affordable legal representation to how to navigate time off work as a witness, here are the basics of navigating the legal system
If you find yourself caught up in the legal system, it can be incredibly daunting. Procedures around the court system can feel complex to those unfamiliar with the inner workings of the justice system, yet we all must still engage with it – even if we don’t have a law degree to guide us.
If you find yourself facing a legal problem or have been asked to go to court as a witness, you will doubtless have questions. Read on for answers to some of the most common queries about the legal system.
What if I can’t afford a solicitor?
Getting proper legal representation when going to court can be incredibly expensive, making paying for a solicitor prohibitive for many. If you have been summoned to court and can’t afford to hire legal representation, you do have some options.
If you are up against a serious case and you can’t afford a solicitor, you could be eligible for legal aid, which could pay some or all of your fees. Circumstances that could allow for this include if you are at risk of domestic violence, are going to be made homeless, face discrimination or there is a chance you could go to jail as a result of the trial.
For civil cases – those that aren’t related to alleged crimes – you can use the Gov.uk website to see if you are eligible, or visit ChildLawAdvice.org for advice specifically relating to families. For criminal cases, you should ask your appointed solicitor or barrister about the possibility of legal aid, which will – as soon as you’ve left the police station – be judged on your income. You can use Gov.uk or Citizens Advice to find legal aid solicitors.
Is it possible to go to court without a solicitor or barrister?
Though it is not an advised course of action, you are entitled to represent yourself in court and many people chose to do so for smaller or less complex cases, such as trying to retrieve money through the small claims court. You should think carefully before proceeding, and consider whether mediation might be a better way to solve your problem.
If you decide to go down the legal action route you will be referred to as a ‘litigant in person’. If you feel you want guidance on how to represent yourself, but can’t pay for legal advice, you could contact Support Through Court, which will pair you up with a volunteer who can run you through the process of the court hearing and help you with paperwork – although they won’t be able to give you legal advice.
On the day, you are allowed to take someone with you into court to support you, and that person will be referred to as a McKenzie Friend. This could be a family member or friend, a Support The Court volunteer or other charity volunteer, or someone from Citizens Advice.
I’ve been called as a witness. What happens now?
Sometimes we end up in court through no fault of our own, but rather to act as a witness. If you have been called to court as a witness, you will be kept in the loop by a witness care officer, if you are a witness for the prosecution. Or by a defence lawyer, if you are a witness for the defence.
As well as being incredibly nerve-wracking, there are practical issues to take into consideration. First, you might need time off work. Your employer is not obliged to pay you for this time off, but you can claim expenses for loss of earnings by filling out a form on the day of the trial, which you can get from a Witness Service volunteer.
Many trials are still calling in witnesses by phone call or video call, so if that is the case, do make sure that you have a quiet space to take the call where you won’t be interrupted. Should you need to physically go to court, you can claim for travel expenses and up to £67 a day for childcare. It is worth remembering that children under the age of 14 are not allowed in court unless they themselves are testifying, so if you have young children you must arrange care for them.