The following information is based on criminal court procedures. The criminal court is the court which looks at cases where someone has broken the law and is old enough to be held accountable for this as an adult. For information about youth justice and civil courts and family courts, contact your nearest sexual assault agency for a referral to a lawyer who can help you.
When you make a report to the Police about rape or sexual abuse they will ask you details about the assault. Their job is to investigate the crime and to find evidence to support the case. If you wish to make a complaint about the way a Police officer has handled any aspect of your case you have the right to put your concerns in writing and send it to the Independent Police Complaints Authority at PO Box 5025, Wellington, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone them on 0800 503 728.
In some situations the Police cannot find enough evidence to take the crime to court. If the case does go to court the Crown (lawyers for the Government) takes the case on your behalf and you become a witness in the case.
If the Police can take the case to court it may be months, in some cases a year or more, before the court date comes up.
When you have a court date it is very important to get some support for yourself for the trial period (and beyond if necessary).
Before going to court
Before your court date you can prepare for the trial in several ways:
- Organise support – friends, family, trial support from sexual assault agencies, ACC subsidised counselling/counselling, support groups etc.
- Court Services for Victims – Court Services for Victims have Victim Advisors who are employed by the Department for Courts to provide information which you are entitled to have about your case. They can also arrange for you to see inside the court room several days before the trial so that you can familiarise yourself with the surroundings. Victims Advisors can also help you with information about name suppression during the court case. You can find their contact details by looking in the telephone book under Courts – Department for.
- Reading – Before going to court you might like to read about what it will be like. There are several very good booklets about going to court and your nearest sexual assault agency should be able to help you find these and other resources. Some booklets include ‘The Rape Survivors’ Legal Guide’, ‘What Happens Next? A young person’s guide to being a witness’ and ‘Going to Court’ (for children). For more information on the legal process contact Youthlaw on (09) 309 6967, the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office on (09) 378 6085 or the Wellington Community Law Centre on (04) 499 2928.
- As the court date approaches you might like to arrange to do something in the evenings of the court case with supportive friends. This can help you take your mind off the trial and focus on other things in your life for a while.
The court process can bring up a lot of memories about the abuse which can cause flashbacks, anxiety and other effects from the assault. For this and other reasons it is very important to have strong support for yourself from family and friends and/or to be in counselling at the time the case goes to court.
Support for the trial
- Your friends – It can be really useful to have supportive friends with you during the trial. These people can provide a valuable link to your own life (outside the trial) and can be someone you feel comfortable with. They can wait with you while the trial is in progress but may not be able to accompany you while you are giving your testimony.
- Other trial support – Many sexual assault centres in New Zealand/Aotearoa can provide a support person who can come and be with you during the trial. These people are there to answer your questions, support you and offer encouragement. They can often help if you find yourself getting upset or feeling numb by helping you to work out some strategies to stay calm enough to answer the questions. These people are allowed to go with you when you give your testimony. Trials can last for several days so it can be important to let the sexual assault agency know that you will be needing someone for a few days.
The Police will usually tell you what times you should be at court and where to go. They will normally organise a room for you to be in so that you will not see the accused and their friends and family. A Police officer will come and get you when it is time for you to give your testimony. It can be helpful to bring something to keep yourself busy while you are waiting.
During the trial you will only be allowed into the courtroom while giving your testimony. The accused will be in the courtroom for the whole trial.
When you are called to give evidence in the court room you may be able to see the accused. This can be daunting for many people. Screens are available in some cases for young people 15 years and under and in cases where the Police feel it is necessary. If you want a screen between you and the perpetrator you will need to ask for this to happen before the trial. You can ask about this when you talk to the Court Victim Advisors.
In the court room
The atmosphere in the court room can be very formal. The language and behaviour of the people in the court room may seem strange because of this.
When you take the stand, both the Crown Prosecutor (a lawyer for the Police) and the Counsel for the defence (lawyer for the accused) will take turns to ask you questions about what happened. Even though the crime may have happened to you, you often have very little to do with the Crown Prosecutor (the Police lawyer) and this can sometimes feel strange.
It is important to take your time when answering questions and to take time to remember the facts. Even though it might be difficult at times it can also be helpful to speak as clearly as possible.
When you are giving evidence it can be useful to have some strategies in place so that you can feel as confident as possible. Some survivors have done this by taking a small personal item into the court room so they can hold on to it, others have moved the chair on an angle so that they are facing the judge and looking away from the offender.
It is also sometimes possible to have a break if you’re feeling overwhelmed. If the Judge sees you are visibly upset they can order the court to take a break and come back to your testimony later.
After the judge and the jury have heard all the witnesses, the Crown Prosecutor, the defence lawyer and the judge will finish up by talking to the jury. After that the jury will go into a room to decide whether they think ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the accused has broken the law. Every person on the jury has to agree to the verdict. The verdict can be guilty, not guilty or no verdict (they cannot decide on whether the accused is guilty or not guilty). If the jury rules that there is no verdict, another trial may have to be held and evidence given again.
If the accused is found to be guilty of breaking the law then the judge will usually call the accused back to be sentenced at another date. You do not have to be present at court on this day unless you want to be.
If the accused does receive a conviction for the offence, you have the right to be told when he/she is released from prison. You can find out about how to apply for this from the Court Services for Victims.
Dealing with the lack of a conviction
As the accused may not receive a conviction for the offence it can be important to have support for the survivor and their whanau. Many survivors view reporting the assault to the Police/going to court as a chance to have people hear what they have experienced, to break the silence around the abuse. Regardless of the outcome of the case, you can hold onto the fact that you have had your chance to tell people about what happened. One woman said: “He had always told me to stay quiet about the abuse, not to tell anyone and there I was telling all the people in the court what he had done to me. He couldn’t shut me up that time.”