How are people charged with offences brought to court?
Almost everyone charged with a crime must go to Provincial Court. If you are charged with an offence a police officer can release you but you may be compelled to attend court by a summons, appearance notice or undertaking which are documents that require you to attend court at a specified time and place. There can be conditions such as:
It is very important to keep track of court appearances and go to court on time, every time you are required to. If someone misses a court appearance, fails to go to the police station to be fingerprinted and photographed, or disobeys the rules imposed by a judge, judicial justice or police, a warrant can be issued for their arrest. Failing to attend court as ordered is a criminal offence, for which you can be imprisoned. So is failing to attend for prints and photos.
It’s also a good idea to speak to a lawyer if you get an appearance notice, summons, or give an undertaking.
If someone is arrested and held in jail (“in custody”), the sheriffs bring them to court. If they are released at a bail hearing, they’ll be given a date to attend court for their initial appearance (“IA”).
Procedure at an initial appearance
At an initial appearance, the judicial case manager or justice of the peace (or on circuit court a judge) will tell you what you’re charged with and read “the information” (the document setting out the charges against you) aloud if you wish. If you don’t understand what you’re charged with, tell the justice and they or the prosecutor (“Crown Counsel”) will explain it.
The term used when speaking to a justice or judicial case manager is “Your Worship”. The term used when addressing a judge is “Your Honour”. Get tips here on how to conduct yourself when appearing before them.
The prosecutor will give “particulars” (written information on the evidence in your case) to you or your lawyer (also called your “counsel”). This is called “disclosure”. The prosecutor should also tell you the sentence they would suggest to the judge if you were to plead guilty.
If you do not have a lawyer, you may speak to a prosecutor about your matter, or they may ask the duty counsel provided by Legal Aid to help you. If you have a lawyer, they will talk to the prosecutor for you.
The justice will also ask you if you are ready to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If you are charged with a more serious (indictable) offence, they will ask whether you are ready to “elect” (choose what court to be tried in) or if you need time to talk to a lawyer. The justice will usually put the matter off to another day (“grant an adjournment”) to give you time to talk to a lawyer. You may need more than one appearance to get legal advice and decide on your election or plea.
Some court proceedings may be conducted by telephone or videoconference using the Microsoft Teams platform. Current information on how different types of proceedings are being conducted can be found in Practice Directions and Notices to the Profession and the Public issued by the Chief Judge. Find guidance on how to appear remotely in a virtual conference or hearing at Attending Remotely.
Getting legal advice
It will reduce the number of times you have to attend court if you can talk to a lawyer before your first appearance. If you haven’t already contacted a lawyer, there will likely be a duty counsel you can consult without charge at the courthouse on the day of your initial appearance. Arrive at least a half hour early and ask to see the duty counsel when you arrive.
It’s important to talk to a lawyer before you enter a plea. In many cases, especially with complex and more serious charges, it’s wise to have a lawyer handle your case in court. If you want a lawyer’s help, but can’t afford a private one, you may apply for Legal Aid. Whether or not you get Legal Aid depends on your financial status and the type of charge. If you qualify, a lawyer will be assigned to your case.
See Getting a lawyer or legal advice for info on how to find a lawyer or apply for Legal Aid.
If you cannot get a lawyer, can you represent youself in Court?
Yes. See Going to Court, Preparing for Court, Resources for Criminal Cases and Basic Criminal Procedure for information on representing yourself.
Requesting a trial in French
In Canada people may ask to have their criminal trial before a judge (or judge and jury for indictable offences) in either one of our two official languages (English or French). You may wish to discuss this right with a lawyer. You may also ask the justice about it. Learn more about trials in French.
Requesting an interpreter
If you don’t understand or speak English or French you may request a court interpreter.
This website provides general information only and should not be used as a substitute for legal advice.
Updated September 2021