Everything You Need to Know about the Criminal Justice System


If you are a victim of crime and you are required to attend a criminal trial, you probably have lots of questions about the criminal justice system and how it will work for you. There are many steps between a crime occurring and an accused person being found guilty and sentenced.

Police Investigation and Laying Charges

When you report a crime to police, they will undertake a thorough investigation. This process includes asking you for a statement detailing what happened, taking statements from other witnesses and people involved, and collecting evidence.

Making a witness statement to the police can be intimidating. They will ask a lot of questions, some of which may feel difficult to answer. This is not to doubt you or make you uncomfortable. The police are trying to ascertain all the facts of the case so that they can pass these onto the criminal justice lawyer who will prosecute the case in court.

You will be given a copy of your statement, and you can add things or correct mistakes later if needed. Even small details or things you remember afterwards might be vital information.

Police investigations can take time. Remember that you have the right to be kept informed on the progress of the investigation. You should be given the contact details of the investigator, who you can ask for updates.

If the police do decide to lay charges, that means the case is going to court. The accused person may be held in custody, may be granted bail, or could be released without bail until the court date.

This is not always the case. Sometimes, there isn’t enough evidence to bring a case to court. The police investigator should always contact you to explain why charges have not been laid. When this happens, you can still be eligible for victims of crime compensation and you should speak to a lawyer or another support person to assist you in this process.

The Court Process

Often, as a victim of crime you will be asked to be a witness during the court case. This means you will need to attend at least one day of the case and answer questions asked by the prosecution and the accused person’s lawyer.

You may be given a letter (called a summons or a subpoena) that will tell you when and where the court case is going to be held. If you receive this, you must go to court, even if you feel worried or anxious.

Remember that you don’t need your own lawyer for the court case. The case against the accused person will be handled by the Office of Public Prosecutions (or Police Prosecutions for cased heard in the Magistrates’ Court). They work on behalf of the people of Victoria.

For indictable crimes, there are several steps to the court process.

  • Committal hearing. This is intended to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial with a judge and jury. Witnesses can be called.
  • Case goes to trial. If the accused pleads not guilty, lawyers for the prosecution and the accused present evidence and call witnesses to make their case.
  • Accused person found guilty or not guilty. If the jury finds the person not guilty, the case is dismissed. If they find them guilty, they go to sentencing.
  • Judge decides on a penalty. The Judge has the power to make the decision on sentencing. The accused person has the opportunity to appeal.

Being a Witness

Being a witness in a law and criminal justice setting can be extremely daunting. However, there are lots of resources that you can access to make the process easier and understand what’s going on each step of the way.

It’s a good idea to stay in contact with the police investigator or prosecution team in the lead up to any appearances you need to make at court. They will be there to explain things to you. There are also trained volunteers who can show your around the court beforehand so you can familiarise yourself with the setting, and people who can be with you for your day in court.

The court room has some rules that you need to follow when appearing there. You must bow or nod to the judge or magistrate as you enter or leave the room. You should always address them as ‘Your Honour’. If you are in the court room at times other than when you are giving evidence, you can’t talk, use your phone, eat or drink, or be disruptive in any way.

When you give evidence, you will first be called to take an oath or affirmation to tell the truth. Following this, you will be asked questions by the prosecutor and the accused person’s lawyer. Remember to stay calm, speak slowly and clearly, and ask for a break if you need one. When you don’t remember something or you’re not sure, it’s fine to say so.

Victim Impact Statements

You may choose to make a Victim Impact Statement to outline the affect the crime has had on you. This is not mandatory, but many victims of crime find it helpful and it can impact the judge’s decision on sentencing. You can ask for your Victim Impact Statement to be read aloud in the courtroom, either by yourself, the prosecutor, or a third party that the court approves.