Understanding the Criminal Justice System
In Canada, the laws are written so that a person who commits a crime is
charged with an offence against society. When a crime occurs, victim(s)
are thrown into a process over which they have no control. The police
investigate the crime. If a suspect is apprehended, a defense lawyer will
represent the accused and argue for his or her rights. The Crown Attorney
will bring the charge before the courts representing society, not the victim.
The victim participates only as a witness.
The Police are the first representatives of the criminal justice system
that victims encounter. The first to arrive on scene are usually the nearest
uniformed officers on patrol. The priorities they set and the action they take will
depend on the situation as they find it. They may make an arrest and/or lay
criminal charges or they may simply commence an investigation.
Investigations may take hours, days, weeks or months depending on how serious
the situation is, the number of people involved, and the amount of other work the
police have. Ongoing investigations are likely to be conducted by officers from
The police are obligated by law to investigate any unexplained and sudden deaths.
In Ontario, the ultimate responsibility for such investigations actually lies with the
Chief Coroner, who must determine in each case, the identity of the deceased
and the facts as to how, when, where and by what means death occurred.
The police are used to assist in the investigation. Investigations following a sudden
death are often very difficult for everyone, as police officers must ask all kinds of
questions in order to rule out foul play. If foul play is determined, then police will
continue their investigation in an effort to solve the crime.
An autopsy (a medical examination of a body after death) may be required as part
of the investigation and can be ordered by the Coroner without the consent of family.
When the investigation is complete, the coroner will provide, on request, a copy of the
Coroner’s Investigation Statement.
Statements from victims and witnesses form the basis of the police investigation. Initial
statements taken by police at the scene of the crime become very important in the
prosecution of the accused. In some cases police now use video taped statements,
which allow victims to describe (without interruption) what happened.
Once an investigation is complete, police have two options: to lay a charge or not to lay
a charge. In cases where no charge is laid, police officers should be able to offer an
explanation as to why. The police may know who is responsible for the crime, but lack the
evidence to prove it in court. There are many cases that remain unsolved – for those
victims the process ends here!
The Criminal Prosecution:
The criminal prosecution begins with an arrest and/or the police laying charges or swearing
to an “information” before a Justice of the Peace. Once a criminal charge has been laid,
neither the victim, nor the police have the authority to withdraw it. The Crown Attorney is the
primary person who has the ability to affect the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
Once a charge is laid, one of the following will occur:
- the accused may be held in custody and not released unless granted *bail.
- The accused may be released by the Officer in Charge with conditions which the
accused must abide by until the court case is fully completed.
- the accused may be released unconditionally
- the accused may be summonsed to appear in court.
The decision as to whether or not someone should be held in custody or released is based
on several factors but primarily focuses on the nature and seriousness of the offence and the
history of the offender.
During a bail hearing, evidence of the crime committed is presented to court by police
officers who are known as “show cause” officers. These officers have a responsibility is to
review all cases where an accused person has been held in custody and, when warranted,
present evidence to the courts that will “show cause” or justify why an accused person
should be kept in custody.
If it is determined upon review that the accused should be released, show cause officers
will make recommendations to the crown and the court regarding the conditions upon
which the accused should be released.
Bail hearings are generally presided over by a Justice of the Peace, who will ultimately
decide, after hearing from both the crown and defense, whether or not an accused will
be released and, if so, under what conditions. In granting bail, the courts may or may
not ask for bail - a sum of money to be deposited with the court to ensure that the
accused will return to face trial. They may also seek a surety - someone who will be
responsible to ensure that the accused abides by his or her conditions and returns to
court as needed.
Crown Attorney is a lawyer who works on behalf of the government to prosecute those
accused of a crime. The Crown Attorney has the responsibility of presenting all relevant
and admissible evidence to the court. The Crown must prove beyond a reasonable
doubt that the accused is guilty as charged.
Defence Counsel is a lawyer hired by the accused, or provided by Legal Aid to represent
the accused in court. The role of the defense counsel is to do everything legally possible to
achieve an acquittal for the accused, or, if an acquittal is not possible, to lobby for the lightest
sentence the law allows.
Judges are appointed from the ranks of lawyers by the government. Judges are responsible
for the conduct of every person in the courtroom. They ensure that both the crown and defence
counsel act in accordance with their obligations to the court and follow all applicable procedures.
They make decisions about the admissibility of evidence and the questioning of witnesses.
In non-jury trials, the judge decides the guilt or innocence of the accused. In jury trials, the
judge will sum up the evidence presented by the both the Crown and the defence and instruct
the jury regarding the law as it relates to the evidence they have heard.
In all cases judges are responsible for sentencing.
A Justice of the Peace (J.P.) is an officer of the court. They are appointed provincially and
work under the direction of a provincial judge. They have the authority to issue
warrants and summonses, take information’s, preside over Provincial Offences Courts and,
in some cases, conduct bail hearings.
Preliminary Hearing is a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to justify holding a
Plea Bargaining is a negotiation between the defence and the crown concerning the charges,
the plea and the proposed sentence.
Trial is a hearing where the crown and the defense present evidence and the court makes a
decision or renders a verdict determining guilt or innocence.
Once an accused person is found guilty of an offence, the judge is responsible for imposing
a sentence. This may be done right away, but is likely to be set for a future date so that all
factors including victim impact statements can be considered.
There is always the possibility of an appeal. The appeal process may continue for years,
and may even result in a new trial.