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Victims of Family Violence - Testifying in Criminal Court

Introduction

The purpose of this pamphlet is to answer some of the questions commonly asked by victims in domestic violence cases. It will discuss some legal questions such as testifying against a spouse, and it will refer you to the assistance, services and resources that can help you navigate the criminal justice system.

Who is a victim of family violence?

When a person is physically harmed or threatened by a spouse or partner, or by an ex-spouse/partner, that person may be called a victim of family violence. Police may also refer to them as victims of domestic violence or intimate partner violence. Because the majority of victims are women, in many cases they are referred to as victims of woman abuse.

Is there an offence called family violence?

Although there is no offence or “crime” called family violence, an abusive partner may be charged for acts that are criminal in nature such as assault, sexual assault, uttering threats, intimidation, criminal harassment (stalking), and so on. The justice system treats family violence seriously.

Will I have to go to court?

There are often no other witnesses in domestic violence situations, so you may have to go to court and testify against your spouse or partner. As the victim, you will usually have the best evidence of the offence. If your spouse or partner pleads guilty to a charge, there is no need for a trial. However, if he/she pleads not guilty there will be a trial. Participating in a criminal trial can be frightening and as time goes by victims sometimes wish they could make the whole thing go away. But there is no turning back once the charges have been laid.

Will somebody help me if I have to go to court?

Yes. The Victim Services Coordinator, Department of Public Safety can help you. Some municipal police may have victim-witness units that offer some support and information to victims. Ask the police to put you in touch with Victim Services or contact them directly. Victim Services can give you a wealth of information about the criminal justice process and your role in it. If you have questions about the evidence you will give in court, you can talk to the Crown prosecutor.

Victim Services, Public Safety specifically offers the following help:

  • information about the court proceedings;
  • information about your rights and duties as a witness;
  • information about special testimonial aids that make it easier for children if they have to testify. This may include having a support person in court, using closed circuit TV or screens, and publication bans. These aids may also be available to adults the court deems to be vulnerable victims);
  • assistance with safety planning;
  • referrals for counseling and to community agencies for support and services;
  • updates on the status of the case;
  • help to fill out a Victim Impact Statement (if there is a guilty plea or conviction);
  • registration for information about incarcerated offenders or “not criminally responsible” accused;
  • help to apply for criminal injury compensation;
  • support when you go to court.

Even if your partner pleads guilty and you do not go to court, or there is no conviction, you can contact Victim Services for information and assistance.

Common Questions

 My partner entered a plea of not guilty. How will I know when to go to court?

You will get a subpoena delivered to you by a police officer. A subpoena is a document that tells a witness where and when to go to court. If you prefer not to have the police come to your home or workplace, you can ask them to contact you when it is ready so that you can pick it up at the police station. If you cannot go to court for a good reason call the Crown Prosecutor. If you do not show up, the court can issue a warrant for your arrest.

Can the court make me testify against my spouse or partner?

Yes. The court can require a spouse to give evidence against the other spouse for crimes against the person. This means that you must testify if your spouse or partner has harmed you or threatened to harm you.

If we get back together, will I still have to testify?

Even though you get back together, you will still receive a subpoena to go to court. If you refuse to testify, the court may find you in contempt of court. If you do not show up for the trial, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. You could go to jail and your spouse or partner may walk away without being convicted. If you change your testimony (recant) or refuse to cooperate and your spouse is not convicted, it can send a message to others that family violence is not a serious offence. You should consider that when your spouse/partner goes to court it may help him/her to deal with some of the root causes of the violence. It might result in a change in the violent behaviour.

What if I’m afraid? What if my spouse threatens me if I testify?

Threatening and trying to bribe a witness are serious criminal offences. If your spouse or anybody threatens you or tries to bribe you, call the police right away and they will investigate. If you feel traumatized because of the crime, talk to Victim Services about additional supports that might be available and the possibility of counselling to help you.

How will I prove my spouse is guilty – the assaults always took place in private?

In domestic violence cases, it is often one spouse’s word against the other. Although the police will collect as much evidence as possible to support your statement, you may be the only witness and your testimony will be important. However, it is not your job to prove your spouse’s guilt. The Crown prosecutor will present the evidence against your spouse or partner. The crime against you is considered so serious that it is viewed as a crime against society. The Crown prosecutor represents the public. Your spouse or partner will be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The judge or the jury will not convict a person unless the Crown prosecutor proves that person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Will my children have to testify?

Your children would only be called as witnesses if they saw the assault and there was no other way to prove the offence. They might also have to testify if they are victims of violence or sexual assault. A child under 14 years old can be a witness if the judge believes the child understands a promise to tell the truth and is able to communicate the evidence. The Victim Services Coordinator can work with your child to prepare him/her for testifying in court. The Crown prosecutor can ask the judge to allow your child to testify behind a screen or in another room via closed circuit TV. A support person can be with your child when he/she testifies.

What happens if the court finds my spouse or partner guilty?

If your spouse or partner is found guilty, or pleads guilty, the judge will sentence him or her. You can prepare a written Victim Impact Statement that the judge will consider when sentencing your spouse or partner. You may read the statement at the hearing if you wish. The sentence could be jail and/or probation and/or a fine depending on the nature of the crime and his/her past criminal record. For a first assault conviction your spouse will probably be placed on probation if you were not physically injured. The judge can also impose various court-ordered sanctions on your spouse or partner. For example, his/her probation order could include conditions such as not contacting you, not having firearms and participating in mandatory counselling if available. In some places, there are specialized domestic violence courts that offer early intervention programs for less serious offences when offenders plead guilty and agree to participate in court-ordered sanctions.

What is a Victim Impact Statement?

This is a form that victims in a criminal case can fill out if the accused pleads guilty or is found guilty. You can write down, in your own words, how the crime has affected you. Your statement can say if you are afraid your spouse or partner might harm you. You can say whether you wish to see your spouse or partner get help for problems such as alcohol addiction. You can also put in your statement if you wish to read it at the sentencing hearing. The Victim Services Coordinator will help you to complete the statement and will then give a copy of your statement to the judge, the Crown prosecutor and your spouse’s lawyer. The judge will consider your statement, among other things, in sentencing your spouse.

If my partner is convicted, will the judge handle my family law matters too?

No, criminal courts do not hear family law matters. You may need a lawyer to represent in you if you have family law problems. Check with Legal Aid to see if you are eligible for legal assistance with your family law issues.

Resources

Where can I get more information?

For more information and resources about the criminal justice system, check out the following PLEIS-NB publications at www.legal-info-legale.nb.ca:

Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick (PLEIS-NB) is a non-profit organization. Its goal is to provide New Brunswickers with information on the law. PLEIS-NB receives funding and in-kind support from the federal Department of Justice, the New Brunswick Law Foundation and the New Brunswick Department of Justice and Consumer Affairs.

We wish to thank all those who reviewed and commented on this pamphlet including representatives from Victim Services Program, New Brunswick Department of Public Safety; Court Services, Department of Justice and Consumer Affairs; Public Prosecution Branch, New Brunswick Office of the Attorney General, and staff of the Provincial Court in Moncton. Project funding for updating and printing the 2008 version was provided by Justice Canada.

This pamphlet does not contain a complete statement of the law in the area. Changes in the law may occur. Anyone needing specific advice on his/her own legal position should consult a lawyer.

Published by:

Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick
P.O. Box 6000
Fredericton, NB
E3B 5H1 CANADA
Tel: (506) 453-5369
Fax: (506) 462-5193
Email: pleisnb@web.ca
Website: www.legal-info-legale.nb.ca

ISBN: 978-1-55396-955-6

 

 

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Disclaimer: Please note that our website contains general information about the law. This is not a complete statement of the law on particular topics. We try to update our publications often, but laws change frequently so it is important for you to check to make sure the information is up to date.  The information in our publications is not a substitute for legal advice. To receive legal advice about your specific situation, you need to speak to a lawyer.