Main criminal trial

During the main criminal trial, the court decides on the guilt of the accused person. Here you can find out what happens during the main trial and what you can expect as a witness or person affected.

    What happens during the main trial?

    The accused person, the defence, the public prosecutor and the witnesses are all summoned to the main trial.

    Here, the child or adolescent concerned is the most important person. In most cases, the child or adolescent spent time alone with the suspect and is therefore the only direct witness. If the accused does not confirm the allegations made against them, the court must determine what actually happened on the basis of the testimony of the child or adolescent.

    The main trial takes place in the courtroom. Present in the courtroom are the professional and lay judges, the prosecution, the defence and of course the accused. Witnesses do not testify until the accused has been cross-examined. They are questioned separately.

    Does the person affected have to appear at the trial?

    The so-called principle of immediacy applies in a criminal lawsuit. This means that the court must gather all evidence itself.

    It also includes questioning the witnesses again. Then there is the principle of oral presentation: Everything that is important must be explicitly stated. Reading through a previous statement is not enough.

    This means that the statement made before the trial only serves the court as preparation. The lay judges are not yet familiar with the testimony of the child or adolescent. Since they cannot inspect the files completely, they do not have the opportunity to obtain all the relevant information until the main trial.

    A judicial questioning via video carried out during the preliminary judicial inquiry can replace the testimony of the child or adolescent in court. In this case, the person concerned does not usually have to testify in court themselves.

    Is a criminal lawsuit always public?

    A fundamental principle of a criminal lawsuit is that it is public. This means that trials are open to the public and anyone can watch.

    This ensures that the work of the court is monitored from the outside by the press and society in general. However, there are ways to exclude the public.

    The most common reason to exclude the public is the protection of so-called personal rights. This would be the case if aspects of the witness's life were to be discussed that would violate their protection, such as their privacy. A condition for the exclusion of the public is that this is not outweighed by the interest in the case being discussed publicly.

    In the case of individuals under the age of 18 being questioned involving offences against sexual self-determination, no further grounds are needed for excluding the public. In such cases, the protection-worthy interests of the minor always outweigh other interests.

    How do I prevent coming face-to-face with the accused?

    A basic distinction is made between a meeting outside the courtroom and inside the courtroom.

    A basic distinction is made between a meeting outside the courtroom and inside the courtroom. To rule out the possibility of coming face-to-face with the accused outside the courtroom, you can call in advance to ask if you can wait in a designated witness room. However, in the courtroom the accused person must be present. However, in exceptional circumstances the court may temporarily exclude them from the trial.

    This is possible if there is an imminent risk of serious harm to the health of the witness during questioning in the presence of the accused. If a witness is under 18, it is sufficient if there is a possibility of a considerable risk to the welfare of this person. The accused is therefore usually excluded when minors are questioned. To ensure that the accused knows exactly what is happening, the court is obliged to provide the accused with detailed information after the questioning.

    Is it possible for the questioning to take place outside the courtroom?

    If there is an "imminent risk of serious harm to the welfare of the witness", separate questioning is also possible during the main trial.

    This means that only the judge and the witness are in the same room. The other persons entitled to be present follow the questioning on screens from another room, usually the courtroom. In the case of underage victim witnesses of sexual abuse, the court will often presume such an imminent risk to be present.

    What happens during the questioning of witnesses in court?

    The court first asks the witness for their personal details. If the witness expresses concern that mentioning their place of residence puts them at risk, the court may allow an alternative address to be provided instead.

    The presiding judge may also waive the obligation to state the place of residence. The court must also inform witnesses that a false statement is a punishable offence and that they should take special care when making their statement. This does not mean that the court has doubts as to the person's truthfulness. By law, all witnesses have to be told this.

    Can I refuse to testify?

    You cannot refuse to testify, because witness duty is a civic duty.

    You only have the right to refuse to testify in particular and exceptional cases regulated by law. As a rule, the judge will inform the witness that they have the right to refuse to testify or provide information.

    Who is permitted to take part in the questioning?

    First, the presiding judge does the questioning. They have the right to fully question the witness. As a rule, the associate judges do the questioning afterwards.

    Then the lay judges have the right to ask questions. The questioning is continued by the prosecution, the defence and then, where applicable, by an incidental action representative. The incidental action representative is a lawyer appointed by you to protect your rights during the trial. As a rule, persons under the age of 18 may only be questioned by the presiding judge.

    How in-depth is the questioning?

    The court needs to know whether the allegations against the accused, as they are presented, are true.

    This means that it must be clear as to what extent a witness remembers things and, if necessary, whether they want to keep quiet about certain unpleasant things, for example. Witnesses should therefore never lie. And it is important that you, as a witness, always indicate during your statement when you are certain and when not, what you no longer remember well and what you do not know.

    What happens after the testimony?

    If you only appear as a witness, you may leave the courtroom immediately after testifying and receive what is known as witness liquidation ("Zeugenliquidation"). It reimburses travel expenses and loss of earnings.

    Witnesses also have the option to remain in the courtroom and follow the proceedings. As a joint plaintiff, one has the right to be present during the entire proceedings anyway.

    What rights of information do the people affected have?

    Those affected by a crime have the right to know whether the accused has been convicted or acquitted.

    In the event of a conviction, the injured person must also be informed whether a no-contact order has been imposed or whether a convicted person in custody has been granted parole or leave. In the event of an escape, the public prosecutor's office must inform those affected by the crime. It must also inform them of the measures taken to protect them. It is important to know that these notifications are not sent out automatically. They have to be applied for with the court or the public prosecutor's office. Your lawyer knows how to make such an application.

    More information can be found in the "Opferfibel" publication of the Federal Ministry of Justice.

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