Information and advice on attending court; being a witness in court; court procedures; appeals; prisoner release; inquests; the Criminal Justice System.
Criminal cases and appeals are held in public courtrooms. This means that, if you want to, you can attend, although you don’t have to unless you are called as a witness (see below). The information below can help you decide if you want to go or not, and help prepare you if you do decide to go.
Support in court
If you decide to attend a court hearing, it may help to have support. Your police contact may be able to come with you. You can also bring friends and family. The court will try to find places for everyone to sit, although maximum numbers will be restricted by seats available.
The voluntary organisation Victim Support Northern Ireland provides a support service in court called the Witness Service. This service is available to victims of crime aged over 18 attending court. If you are under 18, the Young Witness Service, provided by the children's charity NSPCC, may be able to help. You don’t have to be a witness to use these services. Both services provide trained volunteers who can support you in court and give you information about court procedures and, if you are a witness, support you in giving evidence. They can arrange an accompanied visit to the court before the hearing, to familiarise yourself with court facilities. Many people find this helpful.
For details of your local Witness Service, call Victim Support NI on 028 9024 4039 or go to www.victimsupportni.com. For information on the Young Witness Service, go to www.nspcc.org.uk and search for ‘witness service’.
Seeing the accused or their friends around the courthouse
If you were not in the crash, court may be the first place that you see the accused or any of their friends. Many people find this hard. If the accused is on bail, they will be able to use the public areas of the court, such as any cafe. The Witness Service may be able to accompany you if you need to use the same public areas.
It may be possible for you to sit and wait for a court hearing in a quiet room, away from the accused (if they are not remanded in custody) and away from any of their friends. You can ask court staff or the Witness Service if this is possible.
Where you can sit in the courtroom
In the courtroom, you, and anyone supporting you, as well as friends of the accused and any journalists can sit in the public gallery. (If you are a witness, you will not be able to go in until you have given evidence.)
It may be possible for you to be seated away from the accused’s friends in court. You can ask court staff or the Witness Service about this.
In court, the accused person is referred to as the defendant. This is because they are defending the case against them.
What you may see and hear, and how you may feel
Evidence is presented in court for the benefit of the judge and jury or district judge. Sometimes you may not be able to see evidence being discussed (such as diagrams or videos). If you can see evidence, some of it may be particularly upsetting. You may also strongly disagree with some things said in court by a lawyer for the defendant.
If you think you may get upset and need to leave the courtroom, you can. You are allowed to leave and re-enter a courtroom quietly. While you are in court, you are required to sit quietly and not talk. You should switch off your phone, tablet or other electronic device before you enter the courtroom. You are usually allowed to take notes in court, but sometimes there are legal reasons that prevent this. You should check with court staff before taking notes. You are not allowed to take photos or make sound recordings without the permission of the judge.
Understanding what is happening in court
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) should keep you informed of what is happening at court and answer any questions you have. If you are unsure who to talk to, ask your Witness Service or police contact.
Courtroom changes and delays
Sometimes a court building has many courtrooms in it. Sometimes the courtroom in which your case will be heard changes. Sometimes the start time of a hearing is delayed or a hearing is postponed to another day. Your police, Witness Service or PPS contact should be able to keep you up to date with what is happening.
If you are asked to be a witness in court
If you are a witness, you will have already given a statement. In some cases, this statement can be used as your evidence in court. In other cases, you may have to give evidence in court.
Being a witness in court is a new experience for most people. You can discuss any concerns you have about giving evidence with your Victim and Witness Care Unit case officer. Alternatively, you can talk to Victim Support or, if you are under 18, the NSPCC (see above).
You can also go to www.nidirect.gov.uk and type ‘witness’ into the search box for more information on being a witness.
Your local Witness Service or Young Witness Service should be able to help (see above).
Special measures for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses
Witnesses who are vulnerable or feel intimidated may be able to give evidence with the assistance of special measures.
These measures include screening (so you cannot see the defendant and they cannot see you), live television links, hearings in private, use of an intermediary (someone who helps communicate to you questions you are being asked by the court, and communicate back your answers) and allowing a video-recorded statement to act as evidence at trial.
The court has to follow legal guidelines regarding who is eligible for special measures. If you want to find out if you can use any special measures, talk to your Victim and Witness Care Unit case officer, the PPS or your police contact. The PPS prosecutor has to apply to the court for use of special measures, and the court decides whether they will allow you to use them or not.
Courts where charges are heard
Depending on the charge and the age of the defendant, cases are heard either in a Magistrates' Court or a Crown Court. Each court has different procedures and different sentencing powers.
Less serious offences, known as 'summary offences', are heard in a Magistrates' Court.
More serious offences, known as 'indictable offences', are heard in a Crown Court.
Some offences are known as 'hybrid' offences. The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) will make a decision about which court is the most appropriate to prosecute these offences. The PPS will often choose to prosecute such cases in the Magistrates’ Court but can send a case directly to a higher court. If a hybrid offence is prosecuted in the Magistrates’ Court, but the court subsequently thinks the case, because of its seriousness, cannot be dealt with adequately at this level, it can send the case up to a Crown Court.
Preliminary hearings and length of trials
Before the main trial goes ahead, a prosecution may start with one or more short hearings that don't include witnesses being called. These short hearings have several purposes, including giving the lawyers an opportunity to raise and discuss legal arguments that may affect the case and discuss the availability of witnesses. The objective of these hearings is to help a trial proceed smoothly without unnecessary delays.
Cases can take longer than expected to come to court. This may be for many reasons, such as a need to trace witnesses or obtain documents prior to a court hearing. Court hearings may also start late, be cut short or be postponed.
Your Victim and Witness Care Unit case officer will be able to explain to you what is likely to happen at a planned hearing and how a case is progressing.
What happens in a Magistrates’ Court?
A case heard in a Magistrates' Court is usually determined by a District Judge who is legally qualified.
The judge decides whether the defendant is guilty or not (unless they have pleaded guilty). They decide sentences with the help of guidelines. There is no jury. The judge may wear judicial robes, but does not wear a wig.
Magistrates’ Court hearings and trials
The defendant is required to appear in a Magistrates' Court to plead guilty or not guilty. (The court sometimes allows an adjournment so the defendant can decide their plea.)
If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge will hear the facts of the case before sentencing. The case can be adjourned prior to this to enable background reports to be prepared about the defendant.
If the defendant pleads not guilty then a date is usually set for a trial (this is also known as a ‘contested hearing’ or ‘contest’) and the case is adjourned until that date. Magistrates' Court trial dates may be set some time ahead to allow lawyers time to prepare. Sometimes trial dates are postponed, occasionally this happens at the last minute.
The lawyers who speak in court for each side are either barristers or solicitors. Barristers specialise in speaking in court. Solicitors may also speak in court. This often happens in a Magistrates' Court. The defendant may choose to speak for themself.
The lawyer for the PPS presents evidence against the defendant. The lawyer defending the defendant then presents their case.
Both sides may call witnesses to give evidence, such as police crash investigation officers and eye witnesses. Photographs, videos and diagrams may be shown. Both sides can ask questions or put statements to witnesses who have been called by either side. The judge can also ask witnesses questions. If both sides agree in advance of the trial that a written statement given by a witness is not going to be challenged in court, then witnesses may not be required to attend court, and their written evidence can be read out instead.
The defendant can choose not to give evidence. If they do give evidence, they can also be questioned.
After the evidence has been presented, the lawyers sum up their cases and the judge considers the verdict. If found guilty, the offender is sentenced by the judge (see below for information on verdicts and sentencing). Sentencing may be postponed until a future hearing.
What happens in a Crown Court?
Most cases heard in Crown Courts are determined by judges and juries. The judge decides on matters of law and the sentence if a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty after a trial.
The judge and the lawyers who present evidence in Crown Courts wear robes and judicial wigs.
If the defendant pleads not guilty, their guilt or innocence is determined at trial by jury. A jury is made up of 12 members of the community, chosen at random from the electoral register. Sometimes particular jurors are dismissed prior to the trial on the request of a lawyer and replaced. A jury will be directed by the judge to try to reach a unanimous verdict, meaning all jurors reach the same verdict. However, in some cases judges allow a jury to reach a majority verdict with 10 of the 12 jurors in agreement.
Crown Court hearings and trials
Before a Crown Court hearing takes place, the defendant must appear at least once in a Magistrates' Court, where the charge is read out and the evidence is presented to the judge. This is called Committal Proceedings. After this, the case normally goes to the Crown Court, if the judge considers that there is sufficient evidence for a trial.
The first hearing at Crown Court is called the 'arraignment', which is when the defendant must enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge will pass sentence (see below). This may be on a later date. If the defendant pleads not guilty, a date is set for trial. A trial date may be many weeks or months ahead. Sometimes additional hearings take place before a trial so lawyers and the judge can discuss certain legal matters.
At a Crown Court trial the evidence for the prosecution is presented by a barrister instructed by the PPS. Barristers specialise in representing people in court. The defendant usually hires a solicitor to represent them and may also hire a barrister to speak in court.
The lawyers present evidence to the judge and jury to support their cases. Photos, videos and diagrams may be shown to the jury. The lawyers may read statements from witnesses and call witnesses to give evidence in court, such as police crash investigation officers and eye witnesses.
The lawyers representing either side, and the judge, can ask any witness questions. The defendant can choose not to give evidence. If they do give evidence, they can also be questioned.
After the evidence has been presented the lawyers make closing speeches. Then the judge sums up. The jury retires to consider its verdict. This may take some time.
If the verdict is guilty, the judge considers the sentence. The judge may hear arguments by the defence for a light sentence. The judge may delay sentencing to consider the case (see below).
Youth Courts deal with young people aged between 10 and 17 charged with criminal offences. Youth Courts are part of Magistrates' Courts. A judge sits with up to two specially-trained lay magistrates to hear a case. If a young person is charged with an offence which, in the case of an adult, would be tried in a Crown Court, the judge may send them for trial at a Crown Court.
If a young person is aged 17 to 21 and found guilty, they may be sent to the Young Offenders' Centre (YOC) instead of prison. The YOC is a secure facility like a prison and is run by the Prison Service.
If a young person is aged 10 to 17 and found guilty, they may be sent to the Juvenile Justice Centre. This is a secure facility like a prison. The Juvenile Justice Centre is run by the Youth Justice Agency, which is a government agency responsible for reducing youth crime.
You can find more information about the youth justice system at www.justice-ni.gov.uk.
At trial, there are three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and, in some cases, guilty of a lesser offence. Sometimes, no verdict can be reached. In this case, a retrial often happens. Sometimes during a trial the defendant changes their plea. They might decide to plead guilty after previously pleading not guilty. Or they might decide to plead guilty to a lesser offence.
If the verdict is not guilty, the defendant goes free. Even if new evidence emerges against them, they cannot be tried again (except in very rare circumstances).
Pleas in mitigation and background reports
Before an offender is sentenced, their lawyer will advise the judge or magistrate about any 'mitigating' factors that they think might reduce the sentence, such as an offender's stated remorse or personal circumstances.
The judge or district judge may ask for background information about the offender. Sentencing may be delayed until a later date so this background information can be provided and the judge or magistrate can give further thought to the sentence.
Any sentence imposed is decided by the judge.
When sentencing, the judge may take various things into account, including:
- any 'pleas in mitigation' or the findings of background reports (see above);
- Victim Personal Statements;
- whether the offender pleaded guilty or not. If the offender pleaded guilty, the sentence can be discounted (reduced);
- the level of sentences in similar cases in the past. This is called 'case law' or precedent;
- the maximum sentence set by Parliament for the offence;
- the powers of the court. The Crown Court can impose higher penalties than a Magistrates' Court;
- whether a warning, community sentence (see below) or fine are appropriate rather than prison.
A court will rarely impose the maximum penalty and sometimes imposes a much lower penalty. If you don't understand the basis for a sentencing decision, talk to the PPS. If you are unhappy with a sentence, you can make a comment or complaint. See below for information on how to do this.
Sometimes a road traffic offender is given a community sentence (often called a community order) rather than a prison sentence. This means they have to serve their sentence in the community rather than in prison, under the supervision of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland.
The judge can impose a probation order (which means the offender is supervised while in the community), a community service order (which means the offender must do 40 - 240 hours of unpaid work), or a combination order (which includes both supervision and unpaid work). The offender may have to abide by a curfew (which means they must stay indoors at certain times) or they may have to undertake programmes to address offending behaviour (for example, a drug or alcohol programme). If an offender fails to comply with the requirements, they may have to go back to court and may receive a different sentence.
For more information, go to www.nidirect.gov.uk and search for ‘probation and community sentencing'.
Restorative justice provides an opportunity to meet or communicate with an offender to explain the impact of their crime on you. It also aims to help offenders take responsibility for their actions and make amends.
An example of restorative justice could include a meeting with an offender, guided by a trained facilitator. In this meeting you explain how the crime has affected you, and the offender explains their actions and apologises. Another example could be letter correspondence, or audio or video recordings, between you and the offender. You will have the opportunity to consider and discuss what will work best for you. Your involvement in restorative justice is entirely voluntary. If you are offered it (by the Probation Board or prison service), you may want to consider it carefully, and how it may make you feel. If you aren't offered restorative justice but you want it to take place, you can talk to the PPS or your police contact.
Section 8 of the Victim Charter: A charter for victims of crime (2015) explains more about restorative justice and is available from www.justice-ni.gov.uk.
For more information about the criminal justice process, go to www.ppsni.gov.uk.
Appeals by an offender
Following a criminal case a convicted person may appeal against their conviction (if they had pleaded not guilty at trial) or their sentence or both.
If in custody, they can also apply for bail and in some cases may be released while waiting for their appeal.
If the case was heard in a Magistrates' Court
An appeal by someone against their conviction or sentence in a Magistrates' Court will be heard in a County Court by a judge who sits alone (unless it is an appeal from the Youth Court when the judge sits with two lay magistrates). In the case of an appeal against a conviction, there may be a retrial, with witnesses called again. The judge has the power to uphold or quash the conviction. In the case of an appeal against a sentence, the judge can change it to a more lenient or more severe sentence, or keep it the same.
Rarely, a case is heard in the Court of Appeal instead. This happens if it is being argued that a conviction was incorrect because the Magistrates' Court misinterpreted a law. If the Court of Appeal finds this to be true, it can order a retrial in the Magistrates' Court.
If the case was heard in a Crown Court
Many appeals by people against their conviction or sentence in a Crown Court are not given permission by the courts to go ahead.
If an appeal does go ahead following a conviction in a Crown Court, it is heard in the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal has various powers. These include upholding the conviction, changing the conviction to a conviction for a different offence, quashing the conviction, changing the sentence, acquitting the person, or ordering a re-trial.
Appeals by the prosecution
The prosecution has no automatic right to appeal a conviction or a sentence in a Magistrates' Court. However, in limited circumstances involving an error of law, the prosecution may appeal a Magistrates' Court decision. This appeal is made to the Crown Court.
The PPS has no power to appeal against a verdict of not guilty in a Crown Court.
The Director of Public Prosecutions can refer a sentence imposed by a Crown Court to the Court of Appeal on the basis that the sentence was 'unduly lenient'. If you think a sentence for a charge heard in the Crown Court was too lenient you can also write to the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney General for Northern Ireland expressing your concerns.
Appeals to the House of Lords
Either the prosecution or the offender may appeal to the House of Lords where there is a point of law being questioned that is of general public importance.
When can appeals be lodged?
All appeals must be lodged within 28 days of a sentence being imposed and sometimes sooner. You can talk to your police or PPS contact to find out if an appeal has been lodged and the progress of any appeal. They can also tell you the date of an appeal, if you want to go, or its outcome if you don’t want to go.
Talk to your Victim and Witness Care Unit case officer to find out if an appeal has been lodged and the progress of any appeal. You can read more about appeals in the Victim Charter: A charter for victims of crime (2015), available from www.justice-ni.gov.uk.
Challenging a decision through judicial review
A few bereaved families have challenged the Public Prosecution Service in the High Court for not prosecuting a serious charge. These challenges have used a process called judicial review. The High Court has the power to rule that the PPS should reconsider bringing a serious charge. This process is very costly unless you can qualify for legal aid.
Will a prisoner serve their whole sentence in prison?
Some offenders will be released automatically halfway through their sentence or in some cases earlier.
An offender who is sentenced to less than 12 months in prison will be released automatically halfway through their sentence. If an offender commits another offence before the end of their sentence they may be required to serve the rest of their sentence in custody as well as being punished for the new offence.
An offender who is sentenced to 12 months or more in prison will serve half their sentence in prison and the rest in the community. During the period in the community they will be supervised by a probation officer and have to meet certain conditions, such as a curfew or attending a programme to address their behaviour (for example, a drink-driving awareness programme). If an offender fails to comply with conditions, they may be sent back to prison for the remainder of their sentence.
Offenders who receive a 'life' sentence will have a minimum custodial period set by the court. Once this minimum period is up, the offender may be released unless they are considered to be a risk to the public. If the offender commits another offence at any time after their release, they may be sent back to prison.
Some offenders may also be released for short periods on 'temporary licence' during their prison sentence. This could be for reasons such as to attend a funeral, have medical treatment, or to prepare them for their return to life in their community. Prisoners must return to prison at the end of a temporary licence.
Will I be told when a prisoner is going to be released?
You can sign up to a Prisoner Release Victim Information Scheme if the offender is over 18 and has been sentenced to six months or more imprisonment.
This scheme informs you of the month and year that the offender is due to be released. You will also be able to voice any concerns you have about an offender's release in writing.
You can also sign up to receive information, or voice any concerns, if an offender has been sentenced to a period of supervised probation (see above). You can choose to be informed about any changes to the probation order, such as a breach of its conditions, revocation or recall to prison.
This scheme may be particularly appropriate if the offender normally lives in your community and you are worried that they may pose a danger to you or people around you when they are released.
The Prisoner Release Victim Information Scheme is run by Northern Ireland Prison Service and Probation Board Northern Ireland. For more information and to register, call 0300 1233 269 or email email@example.com. You can also register online at www.pbni.org.uk.
For further information go to www.nidirect.gov.uk. You can also use this site to get in touch with the Prison Service or Probation Board if you are worried about something, for example if you have received unwanted contact from an offender.
Coroners are independent judicial officers who investigate unnatural, sudden and violent deaths. This includes all deaths on the road. Coroners are lawyers appointed by the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission.
The coroner is required to confirm the identity of the person who died and find out how, when and where they died. Coroners reach conclusions called findings (see below). Coroners cannot find someone guilty of a criminal offence nor sentence them. This is the role of the criminal courts. Similarly, coroners cannot establish civil liability or award compensation. This is the role of the civil courts.
To help them find the cause of death, the coroner will often order a post-mortem examination of the body. In some cases the coroner’s investigation includes an inquest (see below). This will always happen if the death was from unnatural causes and if there was no criminal trial.
If someone is likely to face criminal charges for causing the death, the coroner will usually suspend their investigation until after criminal proceedings have finished. At this stage, the coroner will consider if an inquest should be held. The coroner is responsible for authorising the release of the body for burial or cremation and issues the relevant paperwork to enable the registration of a death after their investigation is complete.
Coroners are assisted by a coroner's liaison officer, who will contact the next of kin once the post-mortem examination is over. You can ask to talk to this officer at any time and they will try to answer any questions about the post-mortem examination and the coroner's investigation. You can contact the coroner's office on 0300 200 7811 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A coroner's finding is a factual statement about the cause of death and the circumstances surrounding the death.
A coroner may say in their findings that a death was accidental even when someone is thought to have caused a death on the road. This can be upsetting, but criminal charges may still be brought (see below for information about the timings of criminal and coroner’s proceedings), and you may still be able to pursue a claim for compensation.
Coroners sometimes reach their findings at public inquiries called inquests. Inquests are held in a courtroom. Their length depends on the case. Inquests after a death on the road are normally held in front of a coroner without a jury. However in certain cases, for example if the case raises concerns about public safety, a jury can be called. The coroner or their staff can tell you if this is the case.
Is there always an inquest?
The coroner will usually wait until criminal proceedings have finished before deciding whether to hold an inquest. The coroner may decide not to hold an inquest if they think the facts of the case were covered by a court hearing.
If there is no inquest, the coroner will close the case and will notify the registrar so that the family can register the death. The coroner will record the cause of death based on evidence they have on file, which is generally the findings of the post-mortem report.
If you think a court hearing failed to discuss all the aspects of your case and you think an inquest should take place, you can ask the coroner to consider holding an inquest. The coroner will take your views into account and makes the final decision about whether or not an inquest will be held.
What happens at an inquest?
At an inquest, a coroner examines the facts surrounding a death. Witnesses are usually called to give evidence. This may include the police, medical staff, expert witnesses and eye witnesses. Contributions may also be allowed by a relation, friend or legal representative of the person who has died (see below). There may be particular people who you, or a solicitor representing you, think are important witnesses. If so, you or your solicitor can suggest these people to the coroner. It is up to the coroner who they decide to call to give evidence.
Anyone who may face, or who has faced, a criminal charge in connection with the case can be required to attend the inquest and be sworn in as a witness and face questions from the coroner, although they have the right not to answer questions that may incriminate them.
With the permission of the coroner, witnesses may also be questioned by 'properly interested persons'. This could be you, or someone else close to the person who died, or a lawyer representing you. For example, you may have a lawyer who is pursuing a compensation claim on your behalf who wishes to ask questions.
The coroner may also allow witnesses to be questioned by someone, such as a lawyer, representing a person accused of a criminal offence in connection with the death.
All questions must be about the facts of the death. The coroner will decide whether a question is relevant.
If you are organising a lawyer to speak on your behalf at an inquest, it is important to choose one with expertise in doing this. Go to www.lawsoc-ni.org for a directory of lawyers.
Legal aid for representation at an inquest is sometimes available. Your lawyer can find out if you are entitled to it.
The coroner will use the evidence provided by witnesses at the inquest to reach their findings (see above).
A coroner can write a letter to outline road safety concerns that arose during an inquest. They send this letter to any relevant authority, organisation or individual who may be able to address these issues. The coroner cannot force anyone to take steps to prevent future deaths. You can ask the coroner to provide you with a copy of any letter they send and replies received, although the coroner does not have to do so.
Attending an inquest
Inquests are public hearings you can attend, if you want to. As described above, people known as ‘properly interested persons’ (including relatives of the person who died), are also entitled to representation by a lawyer.
The coroner's liaison officer should inform the next of kin of the date, time and venue of an inquest. If you are not told, you can ask the coroner's liaison officer.
For most people, attending an inquest is a new experience. You may wish to familiarise yourself with the courtroom in advance by visiting it. The coroner's liaison officer can arrange this.
Before an inquest, you, or a solicitor acting on your behalf, can request to see documents such as reports that are going to be presented at an inquest, to help you, or your solicitor, prepare for the inquest. The coroner decides whether to allow you to see such documents.
During the inquest, technical terms may be used. Coroners should try to explain terms so everyone can understand what is being discussed. You may find some evidence upsetting, for example descriptions of injuries. If you get upset during an inquest, you can leave the courtroom at any time. If you do not want to miss anything, the coroner may be prepared to adjourn the inquest for a short time.
After an inquest is over, it is possible for you, or your solicitor, to obtain a copy of notes from the inquest, for a fee. A recording of the hearing may also be available. If you didn’t attend the inquest, you may want to ask the coroner’s officer what the notes or recording contain, in case there is anything you don’t want to see or hear because it may distress you.
Because inquests are held in public, someone who may have caused the death, and their friends, may also attend. Journalists may attend and report on what happens and ask to talk to you (see ‘Practical issues’ for information on talking to journalists). You may wish to ask family or friends to attend the inquest with you for support. The coroner's liaison officer can tell you how many seats will be available.
Professional standards you can expect to receive from a coroner in Northern Ireland are available to read at www.brake.org.uk/support or go to www.courtsni.gov.uk for more information about coroners.
Having your say about criminal justice
If you have a comment or a concern about the criminal justice system you have a right to be heard and your point of view considered. Speaking up may also help improve criminal justice in the future.
You may have one or more points you wish to raise with one or more criminal justice organisations. Your first step should be to decide which organisation you need to contact. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is responsible for police family liaison and criminal investigations. The Public Prosecution Service is responsible for bringing prosecutions. The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service is responsible for what happens in court (see above), although it is worth remembering that decisions by judges can only be challenged by appeal (see above). The Northern Ireland Prison Service is responsible for what happens to an offender (see above).
Your next step is to find out the complaint policy of the organisation you want to contact. Different organisations have different complaint policies, and these policies explain how to have your say. You can usually find an organisation’s complaint policy on its website, or ask a local official who works for that organisation to give you a copy.
A complaint policy usually asks you to submit comments in writing. It should explain who will respond (usually a complaints officer or someone close to your case) and how quickly. Whoever responds should aim to address your comments to your satisfaction.
If you would prefer a meeting, this may or may not be possible or appropriate depending on the complaint policy of the organisation, their resources, and the nature of your comments.
When preparing your comments, it is a good idea to read the government’s Victim Charter, and other codes that set standards for criminal justice organisations to enable them to better meet victims’ needs. Read the latest versions of these codes and standards at www.brake.org.uk/support.
If you are not satisfied with a response you receive
Complaint policies usually explain steps you can take if you are not satisfied with a response. Usually, this includes giving you the chance to have your comments considered by someone else, such as someone more senior.
If you are still not satisfied with another response you receive, a complaint policy may give you further opportunities, such as having your comments reconsidered by a specialist team, or by the boss of the organisation. There may also be an opportunity to have your comments considered by an independent agency. For example, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland investigates complaints about the police.
Having your say to the government
Criminal justice organisations are set up and regulated by the government, and are the responsibility of particular government departments and their ministers, elected by you.
If you feel your concerns have not been answered by a criminal justice organisation and you wish to raise your concerns with the government, you have a right to do this.
Any criminal justice organisation can confirm for you which government minister they report to, in which department, and how to contact that minister. For example, the Lord Chief Justice is responsible for judicial matters in Northern Ireland.
You may choose to contact a minister directly, or through your MP or MLA.
You can also contact the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO), who is responsible for investigating complaints about government departments. For more information go to www.nipso.org.uk.
You may also wish to join one of several organisations campaigning for criminal justice in road death cases.
Seeking help to have your voice heard
If you are not sure how to have your voice heard, or you need help preparing what you want to say, call the Brake helpline on 0808 8000 401. Its officers are experienced in helping you to get your thoughts across to the most appropriate people.
Go to the next section of this guide: Can I claim compensation? or to return to the contents page.