If you have been a witness to a crime, or it is believed that you have documentary or other evidence which could be valuable in the prosecution of a criminal matter, you may receive a witness subpoena. In NSW, it is a criminal offence to ignore a subpoena. If you have been served with one, you will be required to attend court or submit the documentary evidence listed on the subpoena.
Appearing as a witness
If you are asked to appear as a witness at a NSW court it means that your evidence is significant to the case being dealt with. If you have been given a subpoena, you have to attend court at the day and time specified, so make sure you make arrangements ahead of time and organise time off work if you need it. When you arrive at the court, follow the instructions on the subpoena, which will tell you where to go. If you are unsure, you can ask a member of the court staff for help.
Depending on your level of involvement and the nature of the matter, being a witness can be stressful and emotionally traumatic, particularly if you find it difficult to come face-to-face with the accused. You can bring a friend along for support, although they may not be allowed into the courtroom with you.
Before you are due to appear in court, go through the events relating to the matter so that you have them clear in your mind. You may be questioned by the defence and the prosecution lawyer, and it is easy to get flustered when you feel under pressure and give the wrong answer.
If you made any notes at the time of the alleged offence, bring them with you to refresh your memory. If you have previously given evidence at a preliminary hearing, you may be able to read through your testimony to remind yourself of the details. If you are due to give evidence as a witness, you must not discuss your testimony with anyone else, or talk about the case until after you have given your evidence.
Giving documentary evidence
As well as getting a subpoena to appear as a witness, you may be asked to provide documents or other evidence relating to the same criminal matter. If you have received a subpoena for documents or other evidence such as computer files, you will need to provide the original documents that are specified in the subpoena at the date and time required.
You may not necessarily have to attend court in person if you are not also required to give evidence as a witness. Some examples of documentary evidence you may be asked to provide are:
- Tax returns
- Employee records
- Medical records
- Blood test results
- Bank statements
- Computer files or downloaded information
You should send the documents requested to the court before the date of the trial. This can be done by taking them in person or sending them by mail. If they are important documents that you are likely to need in the near future, it’s a good idea to take copies first for your own records. Criminal cases can go on for a long time, especially if there is an appeal, so you might not see your original documents for a while.
Although being a witness can be a stressful and emotionally distressing experience, it’s important that you don’t ignore a subpoena. Failure to appear in court or provide the relevant documents can lead to you being arrested and taken to court, or charged with a criminal offence. If you are charged with contempt of court, you could be liable for a prison sentence.
The NSW courts offer a number of support services for witnesses who are due to appear in court. They can give you advice about the court process as well as access to counselling and other services which are available for witnesses.