Charged with an Offence?
If you have been charged with a criminal offence in Ontario, you may be unsure of what to do next. The criminal justice system can often seem complex and frustrating. Here are some resources that can help explain the process and what to do if you are charged with an offence.
Guide for Defendants in Provincial Court Cases - a detailed guide for defendants by the Ontario Court of Justice including information about legal defence options, what to do before your trial date, trial overview and definitions of common terms and more.
Legal Aid Ontario Services - a detailed guide to services you can apply for when faced with a criminal charge.
Guide for Accused Persons in Criminal Trials - provides general guidelines for criminal trials.
Parole Board of Canada - the Parole Board makes independent conditional release and record suspension decisions and clemency recommendations, reintegrating offenders as law-abiding citizens.
Prepare for Your First Court Appearance (PDF) - a guide to what to prepare, how to represent yourself and what to bring for your first appearance in court for an offence.
Ontario Criminal Offence Process Guide
Following is a general step-by-step guide to the criminal offence process in Ontario. This does not include everything that may apply to your case.
- Laying a charge
- First appearance and entering a plea and bail
- Choice of trial court and election by accused
- Preliminary inquiry
- Plea negotiations
- Appealing a verdict or sentence
The police conduct criminal investigations. Investigations begin when police witness behaviour or receive information about behaviour which may be a crime. Some criminal investigations are completed quickly while others take months or years to complete.
Laying a charge
The police may lay a charge if they believe a person has committed a crime. When police lay a charge they complete an information package describing all evidence and deliver it to the Crown attorney. The accused person or his or her lawyer also receives a copy of the package. The court recieves a list of charges against the accused person from police.
The Crown attorney decides whether to proceed with charges. He or she is required to prosecute all cases fairly and treat everyone - victims, witnesses, the accused - in a fair manner while also considering public interest.
Is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction? Is it in public interest to proceed? If the answer to both these questions is yes, the Crown attorney will prosecute. If the Crown attorney decides it is not beneficial to proceed with all the charges against the accused some charges may be dropped.
First appearance and entering a plea and bail
Most people charged with a crime get a document that advises them of a date and location where they are required to have a first court appearance. Sometimes if the crime is very serious the accused person may be held in jail until his or her first appearance.
If the accused is held in jail there may be a bail hearing to determine whether he or she can be released or held until trial. The Crown attorney must again consider the public interest and the proper administration of justice in making this decision. Usually the Crown must show just cause why detaining the accused in custody is justified. Sometimes the accused may be released but must obey conditions. Should the accused not follow these conditions, he or she may face further offences.
There are two types of offences in the Criminal Code: summary and indictable. Summary offences tend to be less serious. Indictable offences are more serious.
Choice of trial court and election by accused
Summary Offence - the accused will have a trial in provincial court before a judge.
Indictable Offence - the accused may be able to choose which court will hear the case. The choices are provincial court judge without a jury or preliminary inquiry, by a Queen's Bench justice without a jury or by a Queen's Branch justice and jury.
A preliminary inquiry or hearing may be held before trial to find out if there is enough evidence to go to trial. This allows the defence to hear the prosecution's case. During the hearing the Crown attorney and defence lawyer can call or cross-examine witnesses. If there is enough evidence, the trial date is set. If not the case is closed and the accused is discharged.
There are many possible outcomes to each and every trial. The Crown and defence may agree on a charge that the accused pleads guilty to and a sentence will be recommended to the judge. This process is a plea negotiation. The victim benefits because a conviction is assured and the victim does not have to testify or be cross-examined by defence. The Crown attorney will consider this when negotiating with the defence. A plea can be made at any time before and during the trial. The judge decides whether to accept or reject pleas that have been negotiated.
A trial gives prosecution and defence an equal opportunity to present evidence. The judge decides if the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of any or all of the charges. Canada's justice system works based on the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.
The trial begins with the prosecutor presenting the evidence against the accused by calling witnesses and introducing evidence to support the charges. Each witness called for the Crown is asked questions by the Crown attorney. This is called direct examination or examination-in-chief. The defence can question the prosecutor's witness and present evidence favouring the accused. It is called cross-examination.
After cross-examination, the prosecutor may question the witness again. This is done if the witness's evidence needs to be clarified or if a new issue has been raised by the prosecutor and could not have known about before the trial. This is called redirect examination. During redirect examination, the prosecutor may only question the witness about matters brought up by the defence during cross-examination.
Once the Crown has presented all its evidence, the defence presents its case. The defence may not present any evidence at all. If the defence chooses to present evidence, witnesses are called. The Crown can cross-examine the defence witnesses and the defence may redirect after the prosecutor's cross-examination based on the evidence.
After all witnesses for both sides have given their evidence, the prosecutor and defence counsel may sum up their case. Each side gives reasons why the accused should or should not be convicted. The court then decides to convict or acquit the accused.
In a jury trial, the judge decides what evidence the jury will hear and instructs the jury on the law that applies to the case. The jury decides on the facts and determines guilt. In trials without a jury, the judge applies the law and decides whether the accused is guilty or not guilty.
Once the judge or jury considers the evidence there are three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty or a hung jury (in jury trials). A hung jury means the jury was not able to agree on a decision and jury members do not believe one can be reached. The judge may order a new trial with a new jury or no jury.
If the judge or jury find the accused not guilty, the accused is free to go and cannot be tried on the same charge again unless the Crown attorney appeals and the appeal court orders a new trial.
If the accused is found guilty, the judge may sentence them immediately or at a later date.
The judge chooses the sentence. An independent assessment of the background of the case or pre-sentence report may be asked for by the judge. The Crown attorney and defence lawyer may make sentencing recommendations. The judge considers them but makes the final decision.
Appealing a verdict or sentence
An appeal is a request to a higher court to change a verdict, a sentence or some other decision made by a lower court. The Crown attorney may appeal a verdict of not guilty or a sentence he or she believes does not fit the crime. The defence lawyer may appeal a verdict of guilty or a sentence he or she believes is too harsh. Appeals must be based on errors made by a trial judge on a point of law. A court decision can only be changed by an appeal to a higher court.