Your rights as a victim of crime
Most of us have little to no knowledge of the Criminal Justice System. When we unexpectedly find ourselves having to go to court, this can be overwhelming and terrifying. The information contained in this section will help guide you through the process and give you an understanding of what to expect.
A Court Preparation Officer will further prepare and empower you to face the process and protect you from secondary trauma.
Victims of crime often feel that they don’t have rights and that they are disempowered. Victims are often unaware of their rights as contained in the ‘Victims Services Charter’ and ‘Minimum Standards for Victims of Crime’.
The following information will explain your rights in detail and will tell you what you can expect from the time you open your case at the police station, right through the trial process.
- Keep an Info Pack. (Write down the names of the police officers in charge of your case, the name of the State Prosecutor, dates you had meetings and other important info you may want to remember as you go through the court process.)
- Keep all your court documents in an envelope in a safe place.
- Talk about your feelings with someone you trust. (You should only talk about your feelings and not about the evidence).
- You may want to show your thoughts and feelings about going to court by drawing a picture, writing a poem or some other personal way. This is called a Victim Impact Statement.
- Talk to the advocate / prosecutor or the police officer about testifying in court. (Doing something new like going to court may feel scary. If you are fearful about going to court, it is important to talk about your feelings.)
- If someone is making you afraid to go to court by saying or doing something like following you, making threatening phone calls or threatening signals, it is important to tell the police officer right away.
- Talk to the advocate / prosecutor about the help that can be arranged for witnesses under the age of 18.
- Tell the investigating officer / advocate / prosecutor if you move, go to a different school, or get a new phone number.
- Visit the courtroom before you testify. (You can be shown inside the courtroom and also receive some information about the court rules and role-players.)
- Tell the advocate / prosecutor if you are pregnant or have any special needs due to a disability, or an illness such as asthma, diabetes, or epilepsy.
- Tell the investigating officer if you need transportation or a place to stay to attend court far from where you live.
- Ask the advocate / prosecutor or the police officer where to meet them to review your information before going into the court. This is called consultation.
- If you have a job, your employer must give you the time off to attend court.
Day of Court
Preparing for court may feel scary and confusing. These are perfectly normal feelings to have if you are going to testify. Even professionals, who testify often, tell us they are anxious about giving evidence. Here are some tips the court preparation officer can provide to the witness to assist them to prepare for the day of the court.
- Go to bed early the night before court. (Getting seven or eight hours of sleep before going to the court helps you to think clearly. Even if you have trouble falling asleep, your body is getting the rest it needs and you will feel more alert.)
- Eat breakfast on the morning of court. (Some people find it hard to eat when they feel nervous or anxious. To help you be alert and protect your body, eating is very important.)
- Dress comfortably in an appropriate and tidy manner. (Remember, the court is a formal place, and it shows respect to look your best.)
- Arrive at least fifteen minutes early. (Planning how you will get there and arriving on time will help you to feel more confident.)
- Bring your subpoena with you to court. It will tell you where to go when you arrive at the court. (A subpoena is a legal document that orders you to attend court on the date stated. If there is an emergency reason you cannot attend court, tell the advocate / prosecutor’s office and the investigating officer as soon as you can before the court date.)
- Be respectful and polite to the people who are in the court.
- Meet the advocate / prosecutor and/or police officer in the pre-arranged room or tell the court officer that you have arrived and ask for directions. (There are many cases at court on the same day and the courtroom and waiting area for your case may not be chosen until the day of court.)
- Consult with the advocate / prosecutor before you testify.
- Do not bring any weapons to court. (In most courts, a security officer will search everyone and their belongings when they enter the court building. This ensures that court is a safe place.)
- Wait near the courtroom or the waiting area, until your name is called. (In some trials witnesses are not permitted in the courtroom until they are needed to give their testimony.)
- Bring a book or other activity to keep you busy while you wait for your turn.
- Prepare for any medical needs you may have. (Bring any medications you would normally use during the day.)
- Pack a snack or lunch. (It is difficult to know how long you may have to wait for your turn to testify and the food you like may be difficult to find.)
- Remember the courtroom Rules. There are some special rules people must follow:
- No hats;
- No chewing gum or eating candies;
- No cell phone or pagers should be on;
- No earphones;
- No talking after the magistrate / judge enters the room.
- Tell the advocate / prosecutor, police officer, or the Court Preparation Officer, if you do not understand at least one of official languages (English or Afrikaans). (An interpreter can be arranged to help you at meetings and when you testify.)
- Plan to be at court for the whole day. No one knows exactly when you will begin your testimony or how long it will take. (If you have children, try to arrange childcare since court is not the best place for kids and the court staff does not provide childcare. If you are pregnant or nursing a baby, speak to the investigating police officer or advocate / prosecutor about your needs).
- Think about bringing a support person with you to court. (It is often helpful to have someone sit with you and keep you company while you are waiting. Your support person should be someone who is helpful during stressful times. Your support person should not be someone who is also required to testify.)
- Do memory refreshment by going through your statement, and try to remember as much detail of the incident as possible.
- Take time in the days before court to do something you enjoy. Just going for a short walk can help you feel better.
- Plan ahead to do something calming and relaxing the night before court.
- Take a comfort item with you to court.
- Plan to arrive early on the court day, for court preparation and / or consultation purposes arrive at 08h00. The trial usually commences at 09h00.
- After you have finished testifying, the trial may continue with other witnesses.
- Remember not to discuss the evidence with anyone until the case is completed. You may need to testify more than once.
- When the judge / magistrate has listened to all the witnesses from both sides, he or she will decide if the advocate prosecutor has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused person is guilty of the offence.
- The judge / magistrate may not make a decision right away. If the case is long and difficult, he or she may take several days or weeks to decide.
- When the judge / magistrate makes the decision, you may be present in the courtroom if you choose to be. Discuss this with your advocate / prosecutor.
- Remember, if the accused is found not guilty that does not mean the police, attorneys or the judge did not believe what you said. There may not have been enough evidence to convict the accused person.
- If the judge /magistrate decides that the accused is guilty, the judge / magistrate will also decide on the consequences the guilty person will face. (This may be done at a sentencing hearing and may take another few weeks. You may be present in the courtroom if you choose to be)
- You may be asked if you want to write a Victim Impact Statement for the sentencing stage of the trial, to tell the court how the crime has affected you.
- Do something calming and relaxing for you after the trial is finished. Congratulate yourself for a job well done! You have survived the court process and now you can move ahead with your life!
Important information for parents, guardians, and caregivers of child victims of crime.
When a child becomes a victim of crime, it impacts their lives in many different ways. They often struggle with post-traumatic symptoms, such as anxiety, sleeplessness, separation anxiety, behavioural problems; just to name a few. Parents, guardians, and caregivers often have great difficulty managing their children during this time. The Court Preparation Officer will also refer for counselling.
When you report a crime and give evidence in court, you play a crucial role in making the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs of society and ensuring offender accountability. In return, the criminal justice system should at- tend to you promptly and courteously, treat you with respect for your dignity and privacy and meet your needs.
During your contact with the criminal justice system, the following rights, as explained in the Victims’ Charter and in accordance with the Constitution and relevant legislation, will be upheld:
- The right to be treated with fairness and with respect for dignity and privacy
- The right to offer information
- The right to receive information
- The right to protection
- The right to assistance
- The right to compensation
- The right to restitution
What will happen?
If someone has committed a crime:
- If a crime has been committed, reporting it to the South African Police Service (SAPS) will set the criminal justice system in motion. The SAPS is responsible for investigating crimes and bringing offenders to book. Once a charge is laid, the police will open a docket and investigate the charge. If the police are not sure whether a prosecution should follow, a formal charge will not be brought immediately. However, the police will still investigate such a case and submit the police docket to the public prosecutor for a decision.
- From the moment that a crime is committed and reported, it is important that all the available evidence is collected and protected in a way that will as- sist in the investigation of the case and subsequent trial. Injuries or damages sustained by you can serve to corroborate your evidence against the accused. A medical report should be completed and submitted, where applicable.
- Once someone is charged, the case is referred to the court, where the prosecutor assumes responsibility for the prosecution of the case.