Understanding Canadian Criminal Law

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Canadian criminal court terminology: simplifying the legal jargon

Criminal Court Terminology in Canada:

This article attempts to explain many of the terms commonly used throughout the Canadian criminal court system.


Accused person:

The person who is charged with a criminal offence.

Acquittal:

An acquittal occurs when the accused person is found not guilty by a judge or jury.

Adjournment:

When the judge postpones the matter before the court to another date and time. The delay may be used to prepare a report, or to get a lawyer, or to prepare for trial.

Allegation:

A statement by a victim of what happened.

Appeal:

An appeal is a review by a higher court to determine the correctness of what happened at the trial and whether the trial was conducted fairly. Usually, appeals are based on the judge at the trial making a mistake in how he or she applied the law to the facts of the case. However, in some circumstance, an appeal can also be used to review whether the judge properly considered the evidence put forward at trial or whether the evidence was sufficient to support a conviction. Some appeals can also be argued on the basis of poor legal representation at trial. An appeal can be brought against a conviction or sentence.

Arrest:

An arrest is when the police take a person into their custody to charge them with a criminal offence. Not everyone charged with a criminal offence will be arrested. Depending on the circumstances, the police can give a person an appearance notice, a written notice of the charge that says when the person has to go to court or, the police can arrest the person and take him or her to the police station.

Bail Hearing:

A court hearings to determine if an accused person should be held in custody pending the resolution or trial of their criminal case.

CPIC:

CPIC is an acronym for the Canadian Police Information Center which manages a computerized database accessible to police officers throughout Canada. The database contains information about alleged offences, personal characteristics of suspects, cautionary warnings (e.g. Violent), a list of prior convictions and in some cases fingerprints. It is operated by the RCMP in Ottawa.

Disclosure:

Disclosure is the evidence gathered by the police with respect to an accused person’s case Disclosure is typically provided by the prosecutor in court and can include evidence such as police officer notes, statements from witnesses, photos or other relevant documents. Every accused person is entitled to have complete and timely disclosure of the case against him or her. This includes all materials, whether helpful or harmful to the accused person’s case, even if the Crown does not intend to use the materials at the trial of the accused person.This process of collecting disclosure is lengthy. It often takes months to obtain full disclosure in a criminal case. Reviewing disclosure is an essential component of a defending a criminal charge.

Diversion:

Diversion is a method of resolving a case by having the accused person accept responsibility for his conduct and performing some community service, making a donation, attending counseling, writing a letter of apology or some combination of those or other good deeds. Once the good work is done to the satisfaction of the crown the charge is typically withdrawn (dropped) by the prosecutor. Diversion is an excellent option for those looking to avoid criminal records.

Factum:

A “factum” is a fancy name for a document that briefly outlines the facts of a case and the legal arguments that are going to be made during the hearing. When raising complex legal arguments, the court requires that a full outline of all the arguments and the law that the parties are going to rely upon be prepared in advance of the hearing and filed with the court in written form.

Guilty Plea:

A plea of “guilty” means that the accused admits responsibility for the crime. There will not be a trial and the victim does no have to go to court.

Indictable Offence:

Criminal offences are divided into two types, summary and indictable. Indictable offences are the more serious kind and can result in harsher punishment than do summary offences. They also entitle the accused to additional court procedures such as a preliminary inquiry and a jury trial.

Judicial pre-trial:

A Judicial pre-trial is an informal, off the record meeting involving the prosecutor, defence counsel and a Judge. The accused person is not present during the judicial pre-trial. Similarly to the Crown pre-trial, the participants typically discuss the anticipated duration of the trial and central issues to be dealt with at the trial. Resolution may also be discussed at the judicial pre-trial stage. Judges will often give recommendations to both sides about their respective case, but these recommendations are not binding on the parties.

Peace Bonds:

A peace bond is an official promise made by the accused person to the Court to abide by certain conditions (similar to a bail recognizance). A peace bond is not a criminal record, nor is it an admission of criminal wrongdoing. However, the accused person agrees that in the circumstances of the case, the alleged complainant has reasonable grounds to fear for his or her safety.

Preliminary Hearing:

The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to see if the Crown has enough evidence to justify sending the case to trial. It also gives accused and the defence lawyer a chance to hear the details of the case against the accused. If there is enough evidence presented by the Crown, the judge will send the accused to trial. If not, the charges will be dropped. Not every case has a preliminary hearing. Only cases prosecuted by way of indictment where the accused or prosecutor requests a preliminary hearing will have such a hearing as part of the case.

Pre-trial meeting:

A pre-trial is an informal meeting between the prosecutor and defence counsel to discuss an accused person’s case. This meeting may be held in person or over the phone. The accused person does not attend the meeting unless they are unrepresented by a lawyer. Some of the issues that may be discussed at the pre-trial meeting include missing disclosure, length of time for the trial, and the potential resolution of the charges (i.e. guilty plea, withdrawal, or diversion). This is a necessary step in any criminal case and helps to focus the issues at trial.

Probation:

Probation can be imposed on a person who has been found guilty of a criminal offence. It is intended to be a rehabilitative rather than a punitive tool. This is accomplished by requiring the offender to comply with certain obligations such as counseling or restricting the offender’s ability to contact or communicate with the victim of the crime. Probation is supervised by a probation officer who will supervise the offender for the length of the probation term.

Prosecutor:

The lawyer who will present the evidence against the accused in court on behalf of the government. This person may also be called the Crown or the Crown Attorney.

Recognizance:

A person who is not released on an undertaking from the police station will be brought before a judge for a bail hearing. If a person is released after a bail hearing, they will be placed on a recognizance of bail requiring them to comply with conditions imposed on them by the judge.

Retainer Agreement:

The contract outlining the costs and terms of hiring a lawyer. A retainer agreement is usually signed when hiring a lawyer.

Retaining Counsel:

This refers to the process of hiring a lawyer to represent you by way of an agreed upon fee and payment schedule.

Sentencing Hearing:

At the sentencing hearing, a judge will listen to the plea, and listen to the facts of the case. Next, the Crown prosecutor will read the facts of the case in court. The accused or his/her lawyer will have a chance to speak to the judge and if the facts are agreed to by the accused, the judge will find the accused guilty. The Judge will then decide what the punishment will be after hearing from both the accused and the prosecutor. This is called a sentence.

Subpoena:

A subpoena is a Court order compelling a person to attend Court to give evidence at a trial or preliminary inquiry. If a person, after being properly served with a subpoena, fails to attend Court when directed, the Court may issue a material witness warrant, which authorizes the police to locate and arrest the person and to bring him or her before the Court to give evidence.

Sureties:

A surety is a person who will supervise a bail order. The surety is responsibility for ensuring that the accused person will attend Court, abide by all of the bail conditions and stay out of further criminal trouble. In almost all cases, the surety will be required to pledge a sum of money to guarantee to the court that they will take their role as a surety seriously. A failure to properly supervise the accused person on bail may result in the monies pledged being forfeited.

Trial:

A trial is a court hearing to determine whether or not a person is guilty or not guilty of a criminal offence alleged against them. At trial, the Crown Attorney will present evidence through witnesses in order to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Undertakings:

An undertaking is a form of release given to an accused person by the police who wish to impose certain restrictions on an accused person’s liberty while awaiting trial but without requiring them to go through the process of a bail hearing. The police are limited in the the types of restrictions they are permitted to impose on a person’s liberty. Some examples of valid conditions can include non-association or non-communication restrictions with the complainant or other witnesses.

Victim Impact Statement:

At the time of sentencing, victims and their families can make a written or verbal statement to the judge about how they feel about what happened and what the effects of the crime are. In deciding what sentence the accused will receive, the judge can consider the victim impact statement along with the recommendations from the crown attorney and the defence attorney.

Youth Court:

The court that deals with criminal charges against a young person under the age of 18.