A witness is a person who saw a crime or was a victim of a crime. A witness can be subpoenaed (ordered to attend court) as set out in the Criminal Code of Canada or by a criminal proceeding in the NWT. Witnesses are called to court to answer questions about a case. The information a witness gives in court is called testimony and is used as evidence to set out the facts of the alleged crime.
Receiving a subpoena (summons)
If you were a victim of a crime or witness to one, you may receive a subpoena telling you when you have to come to court, and who is calling you to court. The Crown prosecutor or defense lawyer will probably talk to you to find out what you know about the case before they decide to call you as a witness. At this stage you do not have to answer their questions unless you want to; but if either lawyer subpoenas you as a witness, you must go to court.
If you receive a subpoena, you should arrange for time off work and for someone to look after your children while you are in court. Your employer must give you time off to go to court, and can't fire you or penalize you for the time off, but is not required to pay you. It is hard to say how long you will be in court. A legal proceeding could take hours or days; and you could be required to go to court more than once. You must be available to the court until the judge lets you leave. If you don't go to court when you are supposed to, the judge can charge you with contempt of court and issue a warrant for your arrest.
Ask the lawyer who subpoenaed you if you are eligible to apply for witness expense assistance. Witnesses who are required to attend court in a community outside of their home community can receive assistance with the expenses involved in travelling to another community. If you have been subpoenaed by the prosecution lawyer (Crown or PPSC), please contact the Civilian Witness Travel Coordinator at 867-669-6900.
When you go to court, you should bring the subpoena, as well as any documents or other items that are listed in the subpoena or that the lawyers and police have asked you to bring. If you think you will need some of the documents, you should make copies of them for yourself; as it may be a long time before the originals are returned to you.
When the trial starts, you may have to wait outside the courtroom until it is time for you to testify if the judge is concerned that listening to the trial could change your testimony. Depending on the situation, you may have to wait with other witnesses and the accused. The police and the sheriffs will be there to provide security but if you are uncomfortable being near other witnesses or the accused you should ask the lawyer who subpoenaed you if you can wait in a separate room.
When you are called to testify, you move to the front of the courtroom near the judge and the clerk has you swear to tell the truth. You must tell the truth when testifying. Lying in court is a crime called perjury, and you can be sentenced with a jail term of up to 14 years. If you make a mistake, tell the lawyer who subpoenaed you and they will make sure your error is corrected in court.
The lawyers will start with some simple questions about you and try to determine what you know about the alleged crime. Make sure your answers are based on what you actually saw and heard, and not on what you think probably happened - it's ok to say that you don't know. Do not give opinions unless one of the lawyers asks you to.
It can be difficult to testify in court; usually the accused is in the courtroom, and you could be asked questions that make you uncomfortable such as the details of the alleged crime. The judge decides whether or not you have to answer the lawyers' questions. If you refuse to answer a question that the judge allows, you can be found in contempt of court and sent to jail for a short time. Most criminal proceedings are open to the public, and your testimony is recorded on the court transcript.
Be polite. It can be stressful testifying, and the opposing lawyers can sometimes seem aggressive and picky. Remember it is their job to test the evidence! If you get upset or confused, you can ask the judge for time to calm down.
Don't talk about your testimony with anyone until you testify. You can talk to other people about the case you have finished testifying, but if it is a jury trial you cannot speak to any member of the jury at any time. If anyone tries to get you to alter your testimony, tell the Crown attorney or the police right away. Harassing or attempting to influence a witness is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail.