Law Talk

Canada's Criminal Justice System: An Overview

September 2011

You probably already know something about the criminal justice system. Maybe you're already an expert, or maybe you know little beyond the inaccurate portrayal depicted in movies and on TV. Whatever the case, here are four things you should know about how criminal justice works in Canada.

1. Uniformity, from Sea to Sea

Criminal law is the same across Canada -- unlike in the United States, where crimes vary by state, the federal government creates Canadian criminal laws. They are the same, whether you find yourself in BC, Nova Scotia, or even Quebec.

2. Lawyers, Sharks, and Guns

There are two types of lawyers who participate in the system -- prosecutors and defence lawyers. Prosecutors, called Crown Attorneys or "Crowns" for short, are generally lawyers who work for the provincial government, and hold the monopoly on prosecuting crimes in Canada. Drug offences are prosecuted by the federal government, but for reasons compelling only to the nerdiest of constitutional scholars.

The goal of a prosecutor is not supposed to be to obtain a conviction -- in other words, they should never be trying to win. They have a responsibility to make sure the accused is given a fair trial, and they must drop the charges against someone if there is no reasonable probability of conviction, or if it is not in the public interest to carry on. Don't be fooled though, their duty is to diligently present the evidence against someone charged with a crime, and they can be sharks in the courtroom in carrying out this duty.

Defence lawyers are probably your best friends, if you are ever charged with a crime. In Ontario, most defence lawyers work for private firms or alone. They will work for money and many will accept legal aid certificates in lieu of cash.

For the most part, defence lawyers have to keep your secrets, even after they're dead. They will raise every legal defence available to you, but be warned, they are not hired guns. They can't lie for you, they can't hide evidence, and they can't help you commit a crime. They might not have to tell the court something you've told them, but they can't let you tell the court something they know to be a lie on the witness stand. Once again, they are you're best friends if you are ever charged, but that friendship comes with understanding and responsibility.

3. A Judgmental System

Trials are judged by judges are juries. Many trials are judged by a judge alone, but more serious crimes allow the accused to choose a jury, and some crimes even require it. Judges sitting alone are the ultimate deciders - they listen to the evidence, decide what happened, and apply the law to the facts to decide whether the accused is guilty. Juries decide guilt based on listening to the evidence and figuring out what happened, but since they are not lawyers, the judge must tell them what the law is. Whether or not a jury hears a trial, the judge will decide the sentence following a guilty verdict.

4. Right to Counsel?

While Ontario does not have a true public defender system, there are three primary ways you can get help if you've been charged with a crime and can't afford a lawyer. First, you can consult duty counsel, criminal lawyers who are literally "on duty" at the court. While they cannot argue at your trial, they can adjourn a court date for you or help you plead guilty. Second, if there is a probability you will go to jail if found guilty, Legal Aid Ontario may give you a certificate that you can give to some lawyers as payment. Finally, if you can't qualify for legal aid, you can go to a student legal clinic, such as Community Legal Services in London, which may take your case for free.

This column provides legal information only and is produced by the students of Community Legal Services and Pro Bono Students Canada (UWO). The information in this article is accurate as of the date of publication. If you need legal advice please contact a lawyer, community legal clinic or the Lawyer Referral Service at 1-900-565-4LRS.

Last edited: Thursday, September 5, 2013 @ 9:18 AM