The Courtroom Process

To testify in court means to answer questions under oath. Explain to your child that an oath is simply a promise to tell the truth. There are a number of cases in which your child may be asked to testify in court. Your child may have been physically abused or neglected or involved in a custody or visitation dispute if you are going through a separation or divorce. Your child may have been a victim of sexual abuse or sexual exploitation or another kind of crime, such as physical assault or robbery. He or she may have been injured and is involved in a civil suit for damages. Or, your child may have been the victim of a parental or nonfamily abduction. A child may also have to testify in court if he or she was simply a witness to a crime or accident.

When criminal charges are filed and the person accused of the crime (defendant) does not plead guilty, a criminal trial is held. The case will be heard either by a judge alone or by a judge and jury. In a jury trial, the jurors will listen to the evidence and decide the outcome. Also present in the courtroom will be the bailiff, who is a kind of police officer for the court; a court reporter to record what is said; and a court clerk to administer the oath. Furthermore, the judge will allow spectators and newpaper, radio, and/or television reporters (but not other witnesses) in the courtroom while the child testifies. In certain cases, the judge may ban spectators and reporters from the courtroom if the child is testifying on a sensitive or embarrassing subject.

Each side will have its own attorney present to ask witnesses questions and argue the case. The crown attorney will try to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person accused of the crime broke the law. The defense attorney acts on behalf of the defendant. They will both question the child. The defense attorney will attempt to show that the child's version is not true or that the child is not a reliable witness. Your child may have to tell the same story in detail to each attorney and should expect to be questioned closely.

The judge can play an important role in helping the child witness testify. For example, the judge can provide alternative seating, shorten the length of time the child is required to testify, and control the defense attorney's use of cross-examination to prevent harassment.

The family court process differs from the criminal court process in several important ways. While a criminal trial generally involves a jury, the family court trial does not. Family court generally has a more relaxed and private atmosphere. Testimony in family court may be presented in the judge's office, or chambers. There are only a few people present during testimony in family court, including the child witness, support persons, the judge, the court reporter, and the attorneys for each side.