Going to criminal court
Learn about the criminal court process and what to do if you are the accused, witness or surety in a criminal case.
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The Criminal Code of Canada (Criminal Code) is federal legislation that prohibits harmful or undesirable behaviour to protect the public.
A criminal case starts when a person is charged with one or more offences under the Criminal Code.
If you are charged with a criminal offence
If you are charged with a criminal offence, you will either be:
- released and told by police when and where to go for your first court appearance (virtually or in person). This is not the trial date – you may have several court appearances before the matter is resolved
- taken into custody and entitled to a bail hearing before a justice as soon as possible
Appearing in court
If you are ordered to appear in court, you must attend on the date and time provided in the papers given to you. You should arrive at court 30 minutes before the scheduled appearance. For videoconferencing, counsel, accused persons and witnesses are expected to appear on video. It is still a formal court process even if you are appearing by videoconference. You are expected to act like you are physically in the courtroom. Learn more about best practices for remote hearings.
As the case moves through the system, and depending on the type of charges, you may be required to attend a preliminary hearing, which is used to decide if the Crown has enough evidence to go to trial. After the preliminary hearing the accused person may:
- be discharged (the case does not proceed)
- may be ordered to go to trial
If the matter goes to trial, it is likely that the witness will have to testify again.
Learn more about the criminal court process through the Ontario Court of Justice Guide.
If you are between the ages of 12 and 17 and police think you committed a criminal offence, your case will be dealt with under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA). This means you could either:
- get a warning or formal caution from the police
- be referred to a community program
- be charged with an offence and sent to court
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services provides programs and services for youth who committed an offence or are at risk of breaking the law.
If you need legal help, you can contact Justice for Children and Youth, which provides free and confidential legal advice for youth.
If you do not have a lawyer
If you do not have a lawyer, you should contact the Crown Attorney’s office for the area where you were charged to get information about your case including an Adult Charge Screening Form.
You will need to provide your:
- full name and date of birth
- charge(s) and police occurrence number on your release papers
- email address
- mailing address
- phone number
How to find a lawyer
The Law Society Referral Service can provide you with the name of a lawyer or paralegal who:
- practices criminal law
- will provide a free initial consultation of up to 30 minutes
If you cannot use the online service, you can call:
The Law Society of Ontario also maintains a list of lawyers in Ontario.
If you cannot hire a lawyer for your whole case, you may choose to hire a lawyer who is willing to provide you with initial advice or help you only with specific steps in your case.
If you cannot afford a lawyer, you can:
- contact Legal Aid Ontario to see if you qualify to receive legal aid
- speak to a Legal Aid lawyer (duty counsel) at the courthouse during your first appearance
You may represent yourself in court if you do not have a lawyer. It is important to understand that judges, court staff and Assistant Crown Attorneys cannot give you legal advice. If you represent yourself, you are responsible for informing yourself about the law and the court’s procedures.
If you are a witness
If you are required to go to court as a witness, you will get a document called a subpoena telling you:
- when and where you must go to court
- if you are being called as a witness for the Crown or the accused person
You may also receive a document that requires you to attend the hearing and produce specific documents and items. This document is also called a subpoena.
You should arrive at the courthouse 30 minutes before the scheduled appearance. For videoconferencing, counsel, accused persons and witnesses are expected to appear on video. It is still a formal court process even if you are appearing by videoconference. You are expected to act like you are physically in the courtroom. Learn more about best practices for remote hearings.
Once you have arrived or have logged in, make sure to tell someone you are there, either the:
- defence counsel/accused person, if you were called to testify by them
- Assistant Crown attorney or police officer in charge of your case, if you were called to testify by the Crown
When you are called to testify, you will be asked to take an oath that you promise to tell the truth. You can:
- “swear” to tell the truth by placing your hand on a religious text of your choice. If you prefer to use a religious text other than the Bible, tell the courtroom clerk or court registrar when you are called to testify
- “affirm” to tell the truth without using a religious text
If you are a surety
A surety is someone who acts as an accused person’s supervisor in the community while the accused person’s matter is before the courts. The surety must agree to take responsibility for the accused person while in the community.
Sureties are responsible for making sure the accused person:
- comes to court on time
- obeys each condition of the bail order (also called a recognizance of bail)
If you are accepted as a surety, you must sign the recognizance and agree to pledge or deposit a specified amount of money.
In some cases, the accused person will also need to give money to the court. Money deposited by the accused person, or by you on behalf of the accused person, is returned when the case is over and the bail terms have been followed.
It is against the law to accept a fee or be paid back for acting as a surety.
Being a surety is a serious commitment. Before accepting this responsibility, you should consider getting independent legal advice to make sure you understand the commitment. If you are not sure you can supervise the accused person in the community, do not agree to be a surety.
You should also know
- if the accused person fails to obey the terms and/or conditions of the court order, you may have to pay the agreed amount of money you pledged or deposited
- the responsibility of a surety continues until the case is completely over, which may take a long time
The judge or justice of the peace will decide whether you are suitable to act as a surety by looking at your:
- financial means
- personal character
- background (whether you have a criminal record and/or any outstanding charges)
- ability to supervise
You may have to give evidence in court and be questioned about your qualifications before you can be a surety.
Ending your obligations as a surety
If you decide you are no longer willing or able to supervise the accused person, you can:
- bring the accused person to the court and ask to be released from your duties and responsibilities as a surety
- come to the court and apply in writing to be released of your duties and responsibilities as a surety
If you think the accused person is a threat to your safety, do not attempt to bring them to court yourself. Once a court order is made releasing you as surety, the police will be responsible for arresting the accused person.
If the accused fails to obey a court order
If the accused person does not show up to court or breaks any other term of the bail order:
- they may be charged with another criminal offence
- you may have to pay the money you pledged or deposited as the surety
A hearing will be scheduled to give you the chance to explain why you should not lose your money. You and the accused person will be given the time and place of the hearing at least 10 days in advance.
At the hearing, the judge may order you to pay all, part or none of the money that you pledged or deposited. Further legal action may be taken against you to collect the amount owing.
If you are found guilty of a criminal offence, you can ask a higher court to review decisions made during the trial. This is called an appeal. You can ask the court to look at the conviction (what you were found guilty of doing) or the sentence (the punishment the court ordered). The Crown attorney (the lawyer representing the community) can also ask for an appeal.
If you need an interpreter
Court proceedings in Ontario take place in English or French. If you do not understand or speak the language used in the court, you have the right to get an interpreter who can help you understand what is being said in court.