Going to criminal court involves many formalities. Is is important for you to understand your rights and what is expected of you at different stages of the criminal justice process.
Almost all criminal charges are first heard in Provincial Court. At your first appearance, the judge will ask you if you want the charge read to you. You can choose to not have the charge read to you if you are certain you know what the charge is. The judge will then ask if you understand the charge. If you don’t, tell the judge and the judge will explain the charge to you.
You will then be asked to enter a plea. You can admit to the crime or deny committing the crime. If you admit to the crime, you say “guilty.” If you do not admit to the crime, you say “not guilty.” Before you decide whether to plead guilty or not guilty you have the right to receive what is called disclosure from the Crown Prosecutor. This is a package of documents that has details about the case against you. It will include a summary of what happened according to the police and any police notes. It will also include any witness statements. You or your lawyer can also talk to the Crown Prosecutor about the sentence they will be asking for if you plead guilty or are found guilty after a trial.
It is important to understand the charges and the case against you before deciding how to plead. If you need more time to decide what to do or want to talk to a lawyer, you can ask the court to hear the case at a later date. If you plead guilty the judge has a duty to make sure that the facts justify a plea of guilty. If the judge accepts the guilty plea there will be a sentencing hearing. If you plead not guilty your case will be set down for trial.
In some cases, you must first choose which court you want to hear the case. For some more serious offences you can choose to go to the Court of King’s Bench. If you choose King’s Bench, you will enter a plea later. In King’s Bench there will be a Preliminary Inquiry before the case goes any further. At a preliminary hearing the judge hears about the case and decides whether there is enough evidence against you to take the case to trial before you enter any plea.
Many criminal trials take place in Provincial Court. Some more serious cases can be heard in the Court of King’s Bench and in some cases the person charged can ask to have a judge and jury hear the case.
Everyone is presumed to be innocent until they either plead guilty or are proven to be guilty. A person charged with a crime does not have to put forward a defence to be found not guilty. It is up to the Crown Prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. While not required, an accused can choose to put forward a defence.
At the start of the trial the judge will enter the courtroom and take a seat at the front and center of the courtroom. The people in the courtroom stand when the court clerk announces that the judge is coming. This is a sign of respect for the judge and the court.
At the trial the Crown Prosecutor and the defence lawyer, or the person accused if they do not have a lawyer, call witnesses and argue their cases. The Crown Prosecutor goes first; the defence follows. Both sides start with an opening statement outlining their case and finish with closing statements summarizing the evidence they have presented.
If you are representing yourself you should talk to the Crown Prosecutor’s office about getting subpoenas for any witnesses you want to call. A subpoena is served on a witness so they are legally required to come to court.
The side that called the witness questions the witness first. The other side can then cross-examine the witness and finally the side that called the witness can ask more questions to clarify anything that came up on cross examination. The length of the trial varies depending on how many witnesses there are and how long their testimony takes.
If the charges are proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, the judge or jury finds the accused person guilty. If the charges are not proven, the accused is found not guilty. Another way of saying this is that the person accused of the crime is acquitted. After a person has been tried and acquitted, they may not be tried for that crime again, unless the Crown Prosecutor successfully appeals the case.