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The following is a brief guide to the Criminal Justice System and explains what happens when:

  • a crime is reported
  • a docket is forwarded to the NPA
  • the DPP decides to prosecute or not to prosecute
  • a case goes to court

If you are a victim or a witness, we hope you will find this segment of our site useful and that it will help you to understand how the Criminal Justice System operates.

When a crime is reported to a Law Enforcement Agency, a docket is opened and an investigation is launched. The investigator investigates the report by obtaining physical evidence and speaking with witnesses to ascertain if there is likely cause to effect an arrest. Depending on the complexity of the case, the investigation could take some time.

The investigator will keep the victim of crime or the complainant updated throughout their investigation. Additionally, Law Enforcement Agencies have a duty to take all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of the suspected criminal, the witnesses, and the victim of a crime

Once investigations are concluded, the suspect is formally arrested and the compiled docket is then forwarded to the National Prosecution Authority for possible prosecution.

When a decision is made to prosecute or not, the DPP will decide the appropriate charge for the accused. It is the duty of the DPP to identify the correct charge having due regard to the evidence on the docket. In some instances it may be appropriate for the DPP to reduce a charge to a lesser one. In doing so, the DPP takes into account the strength of the case, the likelihood of adverse consequences of the criminal trial on witnesses, availability of witnesses, the need to avoid delay in disposing off a pending case or lack of evidence to support a more serious charge.

What happens after an accused has been charged with an offense?

When the DPP decides to prosecute, an indictment is prepared , and a committal certificate is also prepared where a case is to be heard by the High Court. A cause list is then generated and distributed to all Law Enforcement Agencies and the Subordinate Court, informing them of which accused persons must appear before court on specific dates. The Law Enforcement Agencies will notify the accused persons in custody, as well as those on bond.

What court can hear criminal cases?

The Subordinate and the High Court determine trials. Appeal cases are determined by the High Court, Court of Appeal, and Supreme Court.

Decision to Prosecute

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is responsible for making the crucial decision of whether to prosecute or not. Before making this decision, the DPP must carefully examine the evidence and act independently. This means that no person, including the Government can influence the DPP’s decision.

How does the DPP reach a decision to prosecute?

Once investigations are concluded and the docket is forwarded to the NPA, the DPP must carefully examine the evidence on the docket and decide whether it is sufficient to take the matter to Court. This involves a two tier approach:

  • The first stage is the evidential stage. At this point, the DPP will review all the evidence and assess whether the court is more likely than not to find the accused guilty.
  • The second stage is the public interest test. At this point, the DPP will consider whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. The DPP will consider factors such as the gravity of the offence, the harm done to the victim, the impact on the community, the accused’s age and maturity at the time of the offence. A prosecution will proceed unless the DPP determines that the public interest factors against prosecution outweigh those in favor of prosecution.

Why might the DPP decide not to prosecute a case?

If there is insufficient evidence in a case, the DPP may decide not to prosecute. This is because an accused is likely to be acquitted if the evidence is insufficient . It is not enough for the court to accept the victim’s story, it must be persuaded beyond all reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.

In some cases, despite there being sufficient evidence, the DPP may decide not to prosecute for other reasons. For example, if the offender is 18 years and below, the case may be dealt through the Diversion Programme; or if it is not in the public interest to prosecute.

How long does it take the DPP to arrive at a decision?

Each case is unique and is carefully considered. If the case is not complicated, the DPP usually makes a decision within a few days of receipt of the docket. Other cases may take longer to resolve because they are more complicated, such as were there is voluminous evidence to review, multiple accused persons or the DPP requires additional information.

Does the DPP prosecute cases on behalf of victims?

The DPP prosecutes cases on behalf of the Zambian people, not on behalf of any individual. As a result, when deciding whether or not to prosecute, the victim’s views and interests cannot be the sole consideration. However, the DPP will always consider the consequences of the decision to prosecute on the victim. The DPP will also consider the victim’s or victim’s family’s point of view.

Can a decision made by the DPP be reviewed?

Yes, a decision to prosecute can be reviewed. Where the circumstances surrounding a case change or if new evidence comes to light, the DPP may have to review the decision to prosecute. When the decision is to stop the prosecution after review , the DPP will inform the victim or victim’s family were practicable.

When a case is before the courts of law, a prosecutor/state advocate working for the DPP will present the prosecution case.   He or she will then call the witnesses one at a time.  When the prosecutor calls you as a witness, the law says that you must tell the truth.

What happens when a case is taken to Court?

For all criminal matters, including those triable by the High Court, the Subordinate Court is the first point of contact with the Court system. When cases are first brought to the Subordinate Court, the Chief Resident Magistrate assigns them to the various magistrates. Once the cases have been assigned, each case is called, and the charge in each case is read and explained to the accused in a language that they understand. The accused will then decide whether or not to plead guilty. When an offence is triable by the Subordinate Court and the accused person pleads not guilty, a trial date is set. When the accused admits to the charge, the facts of the case describing the offence are presented and the accused is then convicted and sentenced.

Procedure for matters triable in the High Court

After the charge is explained and read to the accused person in the subordinate court, it is committed to the High Court for trial as a summary trial case.. The High Court then generates a cause list for the accused persons to appear in court on a specific date.

What happens where there is no Committal Certificate?

Where there is a delay in the issuance of a committal certificate, the subordinate Court may conduct a preliminary inquiry to inquire into the case and determine whether there is sufficient evidence in the case to warrant a trial before the High Court. If the Subordinate court believes the evidence is sufficient, it will commit the case to the High Court for trial. If there is insufficient evidence, the accused person will be discharged. However, the discharge does not preclude a subsequent charge based on the same facts for which the accused was arrested. Whilst the preliminary inquiry is ongoing, the DPP can still issue a committal certificate; if this occurs, the Court will discontinue the inquiry and commit the accused to the High Court immediately.

If I am a witness, how am I called to give evidence?

You will receive a witness summons from the court. The witness summons is an order from the court for you to give evidence at a particular time and place. Failure to comply to the court order is an offence.

Trial Process

When an accused person pleads not guilty, the trial begins. The prosecution will begin by calling all available witnesses in the case to testify. Physical evidence can also presented by the prosecution to be admitted into evidence to support the prosecution’s case. If the Court is satisfied that the evidence presented before it appears to be sufficient to convict the accused, the accused will be found with a case to answer and put on his defence. However, if the Court believes that the evidence is insufficient to find the accused with a case to answer, the accused is acquitted.

When the accused is put on his defence, his rights are explained, and he is free to call any witness. The accused may choose to remain silent or respond to the allegations leveled against him. When the accused concludes his or her defence, the trial is closed and the court adjourns for judgment. The court may convict or acquit based on the evidence.

Sentencing & Appeals



When the court is convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offense, the court will find the accused guilty and convict for the offense charged. The court will then decide what sentence is appropriate for the accused. The prosecution may present aggravating circumstances to the court, if any exist, to assist the court in determining the appropriate sentence. If a finding of guilty is entered in respect of a child offender, a social welfare report will be prepared and presented to the court before sentence. The convict will then be given an opportunity to mitigate before sentence. Following mitigation, the court will either sentence or adjourn the case for sentencing to a later date.


If an accused person or the DPP is dissatisfied with a Court’s decision, a notice of appeal may be filed into court. This means that the accused or the DPP are requesting that a judgment be reversed. Where the appeal is lodged depends on which Court made the decision. If the Subordinate Court makes the decision, the accused will file an appeal with the High Court. If the decision was made by the High Court, the appeal will be lodged in the Court of Appeal, and if the decision was made by the Court of Appeal, the appeal will be lodged in the Supreme Court. Since the Supreme Court is the final and highest court, any decision made by it is binding.

What can the accused appeal against?

An accused person may file an appeal against the court’s conviction if he or she believes they should not have been found guilty. The accused may also file an appeal against the severity of the court’s sentence. This means that the accused is not contesting their guilt, but that they believe the punishment imposed on them is excessive.

When can the DPP appeal against the decision of the court?

When the DPP is dissatisfied with the Court’s decision, a notice of appeal may be filed against a judgment that is erroneous on a point of law or is in excess of jurisdiction. The DPP may file an appeal against the court’s acquittal (either at case to answer or at the conclusion of the trial) or sentence. Before filing a notice of appeal, the DPP must be satisfied that the appeal has a reasonable prospects of success. When an appeal is brought against a sentence, the court must have either exceeded its sentencing powers or imposed a sentence that was not prescribed by law. An appeal is not filed solely because the victim is unhappy with a sentence or acquittal. There will also be no appeal because there is a public interest.

How do appeal court judges review a sentence appealed against?

How do appeal court judges review a sentence appealed against?

The court will review the written record of the appeal to determine why the trial court imposed a particular sentence. It will only consider a sentence lenient if they believe the trial judge made a legal error. The sentence may be upheld, reduced, or increased by the court. The court hearing an appeal cannot sentence a convict to a sentence that is higher than what is prescribed by law.


National Annual Prosecutors Conference 2024

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