From Arrest to Trial: A Canadian’s Guide to Criminal Charges

Understanding the workings of the criminal justice system can seem overwhelming, particularly if you’re new to the complexities involved in how criminal charges are categorized in Canada. This guide simplifies the key elements you need to grasp the legal framework and make well-informed decisions.

Classification of Criminal Offences

  • Summary Conviction Offences: These cover minor offences like petty theft or public disturbances. The consequences are typically milder, and the legal proceedings are more straightforward.
  • Indictable Offences: These are reserved for grave offences such as burglary or aggravated assault and come with stiffer penalties and more formal judicial proceedings.
  • Hybrid Offences: The severity of the crime and the Crown prosecutor’s discretion determine whether these are prosecuted as summary or indictable offences, offering adaptability in sentencing to suit the nature of the crime.

Court Selection Process

  • Provincial Court: This is the starting point for all criminal cases. For instance, the Ontario Court of Justice handles most provincial offences in Ontario.
  • Superior Court: Cases involving more serious charges or charges where the accused can elect or choose the Superior Court are brought before this court. The Superior Court of Ontario and Courts of King’s Bench, B.C. Supreme Court and others are examples of superior courts (though they go by different names). 

Procedures Before Trial

Preliminary Hearings

In cases of serious indictable offences, you have the option for a preliminary hearing in provincial court to hold the Crown to prove that some evidence exists on all elements of the offence being alleged. This option can also be forfeited if you so choose.

Choosing Your Trial Type

  • Superior Court Election: The accused has the right to elect to trial by jury or judge alone in many cases in Superior Court. A trial in provincial court is always before a judge alone. 
  • Jury Trial: You’re constitutionally entitled to a jury trial for offences punishable by over five years of imprisonment, with specific exceptions like military crimes.

Exceptions in Criminal Law

Absolute Jurisdiction under Section 553

Only Provincial Court deals with particular lesser crimes listed in Section 553 of the Criminal Code, regardless of the prosecution’s approach.

Section 469 Offences

Very serious offences like murder or treason are covered under Section 469, necessitating a jury trial unless an agreement is reached to proceed differently.

Decision Making at Trial

Jury vs. Judge Alone

The choice between a jury trial and a judge-alone trial is crucial. A jury brings perspectives from the broader community, whereas a judge may delve deeper into legal nuances. In principle, both a judge and jury play the same role. A jury acts as the “judge” on the evidence heard at trial–as a judge would do in a judge-alone trial. 

Jury Selection Process

Forming a Jury

A jury should be impartial and representative of a broad cross section of the community. The jury selection process seeks to achieve these goals. Jurors whose biases might compromise their impartiality, ensuring a just trial, can be removed through a challenge.

Making Informed Decisions

Every choice you make while navigating the legal process can have significant consequences on your case’s outcome. Engaging with a defence lawyer to discuss your options is essential for effectively navigating the system and producing the best results.

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