Witnessing a crime

Seeing a person commit a crime—particularly a violent crime—can be very distressing. You should not feel afraid to report the incident or to give evidence in court. Support and advice are available to help you:

  • throughout the legal process
  • to recover from the emotional and psychological impacts of witnessing the crime.

If you are a victim of a violent crime you are also an important witness.

Reporting the crime to the police

You should report the incident to the police as soon as possible. This can prevent valuable evidence from being lost or destroyed. It may also help them catch the offender and prevent another person from being harmed.

Don’t be afraid to go to the police. They will help you through what can be a very distressing event.

Call triple zero (000) immediately if a crime is happening now, or a person is in immediate danger.

If the matter is non-urgent, or you are unable to talk to the police straight away, you can report online using the Policelink online forms. If you do not have access to report online, contact Policelink on 131 444 (24 hours, 7 days).

You can also choose to report the crime anonymously through Crime Stoppers. Phone 1800 333 000 or report it online.

Giving a witness statement

If you see or know something about a crime, or are involved in the events in some way, the police may ask you to give a witness statement. A police officer will write down or record what you saw, heard or know.

You will be asked to read through the finished statement and sign it. This confirms that it is an accurate report of what you said. It is important that your statement is true, to the best of your recollection. It is a serious matter to give false information to the police. Your information can help the judge and jury, or magistrate make a decision in a court case.

After giving a witness statement

After you have given a witness statement to police, the matter will need to be investigated and the police will need to prepare a case for court. This can take months, and in some cases, years for the matter to go from the police investigation to an outcome in court.

It is important to always remember that you have the right to have your role as a witness and the court process explained to you, including information about when you need to attend court and what you can expect when you are there.

Providing evidence in court

If the police charge the offender, your witness statement may be used as evidence in court. You may be asked to appear in court to give your evidence in person. This is called a:

  • summons—if you are needed as a witness in the Magistrates Court
  • subpoena—if you are called as a witness in the Supreme or District Court.

If you are summonsed or subpoenaed, you must attend court.

If you do not attend court, you may be found guilty of contempt of court and a warrant may be issued for your arrest.

As a witness in court, you may be asked questions about what you saw, heard and know by both the defence and prosecution lawyers. This is to:

  • confirm your version of events in your police statement
  • ensure the facts presented about the crime are correct
  • help the court come to a fair decision.

It is normal to feel nervous, frightened or worried about giving evidence in a courtroom. Let your police officer, court support worker, or prosecutor know if you are feeling afraid or need support when giving evidence.

Special witnesses

If you are a ‘special witness’, arrangements can be made to help reduce the trauma of going to court to give evidence. Special witnesses can include people who:

  • are under 16 years
  • have a disability and are likely to be
    • disadvantaged as a witness
    • suffer severe emotional trauma
    • be intimidated at a hearing
  • are witnesses to organised crime
  • are a victim or witness to domestic and family violence
  • are a victim of sexual assault.

The prosecutor must apply to the court for arrangements to be made for a special witness. A judge or magistrate will make a decision about the application they receive from the prosecutor.

Arrangements may be made for special witnesses, so they are unable to see, or in some cases hear the defendant (the person who is accused of the crime). These may include:

  • pre-recording the evidence on video before the trial or hearing date
  • giving evidence from a remote witness room
  • putting up a screen in the courtroom.

Other arrangements may include:

  • having a support person with the witness in the courtroom or special witness room
  • closing the court to the public and the media so the witness only gives evidence in front of the people required to be in the courtroom.

Support for witnesses going to court

The court process can be stressful, especially if you have witnessed a violent crime. PACT gives free support to victims and witnesses participating in a court process.

Payment for appearing as a witness

If you are subpoenaed or summonsed to appear as a witness in court, you can receive travel expenses to get to and from court— this is called conduct money.

You are also entitled to be paid for any loss of earnings you suffer because of appearing as a witness. The actual amount you receive will be decided by the police or the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution.

Protection from threats and intimidation

It is against the law to threaten or intimidate a witness in any way. You have a right to be protected at court from unnecessary contact with, or violence or intimidation by, the accused person and their witnesses, family members or friends. If you are contacted by anybody other than the police or a prosecution lawyer about what you saw or know, you should notify the police immediately.

Free counselling for witnesses of crime

Free counselling is available from VictimConnect to help you recover from the emotional and psychological impacts of witnessing a crime.

Phone VictimConnect 1300 318 904 to find out about the services they can provide. Find out more about VictimConnect.