Witnesses under 18 years old
If you have been called to give evidence you may feel worried or anxious about what the experience will be like. It may be helpful to understand the steps involved in taking a case to court. The Courts Service has published an information booklet (pdf) and video for young witnesses about going to court.
Being called to give evidence
A complaint is made to the Gardaí that identifies the child or young person as a victim of, or witness to, a crime. A Garda officer then interviews the child or young person.
Witnesses who are under 18 years of age can make statements during an interview with a Garda or another competent person. A competent person in this situation could be a professional who assesses the young person because of an abuse case that is being investigated.
The Gardaí consider the allegations and can decide to:
- Interview the accused about what the child or young person has said and send the file to the Director of Public Prosecutions, or
- Arrest the accused on warrant, or
- Charge the accused with an offence or
- Issue a summons for the accused to appear in court.
The Director of Public Prosecutions
The Gardaí inform the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) about the case. They also inform the DPP about how the child or young person feels about giving evidence in court, and how their parents, guardians or carers feel about this.
The DPP makes an independent decision about whether to proceed with the prosecution, which means that the child or young person may or may not need to give evidence.
Criminal cases begin in the District Court where the judge sits without a jury. Cases involving minor offences are decided in the District Court. Cases involving more serious offences are sent to the Circuit Court. Cases involving murder, rape, aggravated sexual assault, treason and piracy must be heard in the Central Criminal Court. In the Circuit and Central Criminal Courts, there is a judge and a jury.
If you are 14 years of age or older when you give evidence you will have to take an oath or affirmation. This means that you promise to tell the truth by repeating certain words. The clerk or register will tell you what you have to say.
If you are under 14 years of age the judge may decide that you do not have to take the oath. You must still tell the truth, and it will be an offence if you do not do so.
In some cases involving sexual offences, the judge can decide not to let members of the public into the court.
It is important that your evidence be in your own words. No one should tell you what to say or help you practice giving your evidence before you go to court. The case may fail if it appears that you have been "coached". The prosecution can give you more advice on this.
Giving evidence by video-link
In cases involving a sexual or violent offence, witnesses who are under 18 years of age may be allowed to give evidence by video-link, unless there is a good reason why they should not. Section 13 of the Criminal Evidence Act 1992, as amended, sets out the rules for how evidence can be given by video-link.
To do this you sit in a private room and give your evidence by live video-link. Someone from the court will stay with you to give you any help you may need. A television monitor in the court shows your image, and you have a television monitor in your room, which show you what is happening in the courtroom. This means that you do not have to go into the courtroom or see the accused.
When you give evidence by live video-link, the judge and the barristers do not wear wigs or gowns in court. The judge can decide to let an intermediary (for example, a social worker) ask the questions. The questions should be asked in a way that is appropriate for the age and mental ability of the witness.
Giving evidence from behind a screen
In certain circumstances, a physical screen or partition can be positioned in the courtroom, so the witness can their give evidence in the court without having to see the accused when doing so. This option is available at the judge’s discretion if the witness is under 18 and the proceedings are about a sexual or violent offence. This is done to protect the witness from secondary or repeat victimisation.
Video recording of statements
In certain situations, a video recording of a witness statement can be admitted as evidence. This is only allowed if the victim, or any other witness giving evidence, is under 18 years old, and the accused is charged with a sexual offence, child trafficking or child pornography.
In these cases a video recording of the child’s statement can be admitted so they don’t have to give evidence in person in open court. Section 16 of the Criminal Evidence Act 1992 sets out the rules for videotaping children’s statements.
There are a number of rules about videotaped statements and their admissibility in court including:
- The video recording must be relevant
- The child witness must be available to be cross-examined by the defence after the video is played at the trial (cross-examination may be by video link and using an intermediary)
- The prosecution must serve notice that it plans to admit a videotaped interview in evidence and must give the accused a reasonable opportunity to view the videotape
- An edited version of the videotape may be played to the court, but this can only happen if the accused agrees to it and the judge allows it
Ultimately, the judge decides whether a videotape can be admitted in evidence. The judge considers whether admitting the videotape will be unfair to the accused.
You should get legal advice for more detailed information.