The Courtroom

Interpreter

Interpreter

In all trials held in Portugal, the language used is Portuguese.

When someone who doesn’t speak Portuguese has to participate in the proceedings, the judge asks for an interpreter to be appointed who speaks both Portuguese and the participant's language well. For example, if a witness is Russian and doesn’t speak Portuguese well, an interpreter is appointed whose task is to translate into Portuguese what the witness says in Russian and into Russian what is said to or asked of the witness.

When a person who is deaf or has an hearing impairment has to give evidence, a sign language interpreter is appointed. If the witness is unable to speak, the questions are asked orally and the witness responds in writing.

The interpreter has a key role in ensuring that the people involved understand what is said and participate effectively in the proceedings.

The appointment of an interpreter doesn’t imply any costs for the participant needing this service.

Defence lawyer

Defence lawyer

The defence lawyer has the duty to defend the defendant's rights in the proceedings.
Anyone who is a defendant in criminal proceedings is entitled to a lawyer. If the defendant does not have a lawyer, one will be assigned by the Portuguese Bar Association (Ordem dos Advogados) at the court's request.

The defendant is entitled to be accompanied by the defence lawyer at the trial hearing and the lawyer's presence is mandatory.

The defence lawyer, in representation of and protecting the defendant's rights and interests, takes an active role in the proceedings by submitting evidence, participating and asking questions during the testimony of the defendant, the witnesses, the expert witnesses and the victim and by presenting arguments.

The victim may feel uncomfortable about some of the defence lawyer's questions if he/she thinks that what he/she went through is being challenged. Don’t forget that it is the duty of the defence lawyer to protect the defendant's interests. If any question goes beyond what is acceptable, it is for the judge to interrupt and maintain the order and discipline at the trial.

Defendant

Defendant

Defendant is the term given in criminal proceedings to someone who is being investigated on suspicion of having committed a crime.

At the trial, the first person to be questioned is the defendant, if he/she is present. The defendant is entitled to refuse to testify. However, any statements made at previous stages of the case may be used and weighed up by the judge. If the defendant wishes to testify, the judge starts by asking whether or not what is written in the charge sheet is true, that is, whether or not the defendant confesses to the crime. The defendant then has the chance to give his/her version of what happened and the judge may interrupt to ask some specific questions. Next, the judge asks the public prosecutor and the lawyers, successively, to examine or cross-examine the defendant. Unlike the witnesses, the defendant does not take an oath, that is to say, he/she does not undertake to tell the truth.

The defendant may be removed from the courtroom while any witness, particularly the victim, is testifying. This is the case when the court believes that the defendant's presence may deter the victim from telling the truth or if he/she is under 16 and there are reasons to believe that testifying in the presence of the defendant may have a serious adverse effect.

If the defendant was served a summons to appear in court but fails to attend, the trial will go ahead even in his/her absence and the sentence will be communicated to him/her at a later stage. If it was not possible to serve the summons, because, for example, the defendant’s whereabouts were unknown, this means that the defendant breached his/her duty to inform the court of his/her absence from the address given. In this case, the proceedings will be stayed while the authorities attempt to locate him/her.

The victim's lawyer

The victim's lawyer

It is important to note that the victim is not always accompanied by a lawyer: as a witness, the victim only has a lawyer if he/she so wishes; as a civil party, he/she only is only required to have a lawyer if the value of the claim is over €5,000; as an assistant, the victim is required to have a lawyer.

The role that the victim's lawyer can take at the trial depends on the victim's position in the case:

  • if the victim participates in the trial only as a witness and has a lawyer, the lawyer may accompany him/her and inform him/her about their rights, when necessary, but cannot intervene.
  • if the victim is a civil party in the proceedings and has a lawyer, the lawyer's role is to defend the victim's right to compensation. It is the lawyer's responsibility to submit supporting evidence, to question the defendant, the witnesses, the expert witnesses and even the victim about aspects related to the compensation claim, and to lodge an appeal if he/she does not agree with the decision on the claim.
  • if the victim has the status of assistant, it is the lawyer who, to defend the victim's interests, will, for example, submit evidence that he/she considers relevant, question the defendant, the witnesses, the expert witnesses and even the victim. It is also the lawyer's responsibility to lodge an appeal against the decisions with which the victim does not agree.
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If you think that a lawyer has not respected your rights, you should report this to the Portuguese Bar Association (Ordem dos Advogados)

Court officer

Court officer

The court officer works in the administrative offices of the courts and the Public Prosecution services. These officers are responsible for carrying out the orders of the judge and of the Public Prosecution Service and to conduct, on their own initiative, some administrative actions required for the proceedings to run smoothly.

At the trial hearing, the court officer is responsible for:

  • calling the names of the people who were summoned or notified and informing the judge about who is present and who is absent.
  • receiving the documents and transcribing the applications made during the hearing.
  • writing the minutes, that is, the description of what happened during the hearing.
  • recording the statements of the participants or the parties to the proceedings.
  • writing the court attendance confirmation letters requested by the participants in any hearing to justify their absence from work or school.
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If the victim wishes to ask any questions about the practical aspects of the functioning of the court, then he/she can ask the court officer, who must explain using clear and plain language so that the victim can understand the information.

Public Prosecution

Public Prosecution

The Public Prosecution Service (Ministério Público) is the State body responsible for the prosecution of criminal offences. This means that the role of public prosecutor at any trial is to support the charge, that is, to prove the facts against the defendant. To this end, the Public Prosecutor presents the evidence gathered: witnesses, expert witnesses, and documents, among others.

The public prosecutor may lodge an appeal against a decision with which he/she does not agree. If, for example, the judge decides to acquit the defendant but the Public Prosecution Service considers that there was enough evidence to prove that the defendant committed the crime, they may appeal the judge’s decision.

All public prosecutors have a degree in law and have completed a specialised professional training course at the Judicial Studies Centre.

If you think that a public prosecutor has not respected your rights, you should report this to his/her direct superior. For example, in the case of a deputy public prosecutor, the facts should be reported to the public prosecutor. You may also send your complaint to the Prosecutor General's Office (Procuradoria Geral da República).

Judge

Judge

The judge is a member of the judiciary who performs his/her office independently, deciding only according to the Portuguese Constitution and the law.

The judge has two main functions at the trial:

Firstly, to preside over the trial. The judge is responsible for case management, ensuring that everything runs in an orderly and disciplined manner, that the evidence is given and the participants in the proceedings have the chance to examine and query it.

Secondly, to decide on the basis of the evidence whether the defendant should be convicted or acquitted and, if convicted, which penalty should be imposed. If there is a claim for compensation, the judge also has to decide on this claim. The judge is responsible for writing the judgment, reading it aloud in the courtroom on the scheduled date and explaining it to the participants in the proceedings, particularly to the defendant and to the victim, if he/she is present.

In cases involving the most serious crimes, the court comprises three judges. In these cases, one of the judges is designated as president and his/her duty is to preside over the trial, but the other two judges may also intervene. The decision is reached by a majority of the three judges.

The judge has a degree in law and has completed a post-graduate course specifically for judges at the Judicial Studies Centre (Centro de Estudos Judiciários).

If you think that a judge has not respected your rights, you should report this to the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (Conselho Superior da Magistratura).

Witness

Witness

Anyone who has direct knowledge of facts which are important for the case may be called as a witness, that is to say, they were the victim of the crime or saw the crime take place or know something important for finding out the truth.

In principle, anyone who is named as a witness must testify, with a few exceptions: the defendant's close relatives, who may refuse to testify, and people covered by professional secrecy, such as journalists, doctors and lawyers. However, they may still be ordered to testify if the crime is a serious one and their testimony is crucial for arriving at the truth.

Any witness who is called to appear must attend the court on the date and at the time and place given, follow the instructions given as to how to give their testimony, and answer questions truthfully. Otherwise, they may be charged with the crime of perjury.

Witnesses may be accompanied by a lawyer. Their lawyer, when necessary, may inform them of their rights but cannot intervene in the questioning.

Witnesses are not allowed to be in the courtroom before testifying, so they should wait in the witness waiting area and enter the courtroom only to give their evidence.

The defendant may be removed from the courtroom while a witness, particularly when it is the victim, is testifying. If the court considers that the defendant's presence may deter the witness from telling the truth or if he/she is under 16 and there are reasons to believe that testifying in the presence of the defendant may have a serious adverse effect.

Expert witness

Expert witness

An expert witness is someone who is asked to assist in the proceedings when specialised technical, scientific or artistic knowledge is necessary to understand the facts or weigh up the evidence.

For example, it may be necessary to have a doctor explaining the injuries suffered by the victim and how they were inflicted, or for a psychologist or psychiatrist to describe the psychological characteristics of the defendant in order to conduct a personality evaluation, or for a computer engineer to show how a piece of software was used in committing the crime. In these cases, the doctor, psychologist or computer engineer use their technical and scientific knowledge to provide a better understanding of what happened.

As a rule, expert witnesses do not take part in the court hearing. However, if notified to appear, they will testify and answer questions on the tests done and the conclusions drawn from them.

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