Charging Someone with a Criminal Offence
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Maurizio Datitlo in August 2017.
Typically, for someone to be charged with a crime, the police must recommend charges and a prosecutor (called Crown counsel) must approve the charge. Learn what’s involved in the process.
What you should know
The process to charge someone varies across BC
The process to have someone charged with a criminal offence varies somewhat from place to place in British Columbia. This information describes the process in Vancouver. If you live elsewhere in BC, contact your local courthouse or police for the process in your community.
The purpose of the criminal justice system
The main purpose of the criminal justice system is to bring to justice a person who has committed a criminal offence. It is not to compensate people financially for something wrong done to them. If someone owes you money but has not committed a crime, you can consider suing that person in civil court. See our information on suing someone in Small Claims Court.
The process in a nutshell
You’ve seen someone commit a crime, or have other evidence they committed a crime. The first step to have someone charged with a criminal offence is to report a crime to police. The police will investigate.
The police consider if there is enough evidence of a crime for them to recommend the person be charged. If so, the police send a report and witness statements to the prosecutor’s office (called Crown counsel).
The prosecutor reviews the material and decides whether to approve (or lay) charges against the person.
If the police don’t recommend a criminal charge or the prosecutor decides not to lay charges, there is another process available. Any person who has reasonable grounds to believe another person has committed a criminal offence may provide that information to a justice of the peace in order to have the person brought to court. This is called laying a private information.
The steps in the process
Step 1. Reporting a crime to police
The first step to have someone charged with a criminal offence is to report a crime to police.
To report a crime in progress, dial 9-1-1. Otherwise, phone the local police non-emergency line to see if you can make a report by phone, or whether you have to go to the police station. It normally depends on the crime.
In either case, the police will ask you to describe what happened and to tell them any other information you know. You may be asked to make a statement. This is a written or recorded version of what you say happened. If you make a written statement, you will be asked to sign your statement. Read it carefully and make sure it is correct before you sign. An officer will investigate your report. This may involve, for example, examining the place where the crime occurred and talking to victims and witnesses.
Make a note of the name of any police officer you talk with, and the police case or file number. This information will help you follow up to learn the status of your report.
Step 2. The police decide whether to recommend charges
Once the police complete their investigation, they decide if there is enough evidence to recommend to Crown counsel that the person be charged. Crown counsel are lawyers employed by the government to prosecute (bring) criminal cases in court.
If the police decide to recommend charges, an officer will write a report to Crown counsel. The report will suggest criminal charges the police think are appropriate.
If the police decide not to recommend charges
If the police decide the person should not be charged, they will tell you so, and they will not send a report to Crown counsel. If this happens and you disagree with the officer’s decision, you can ask to speak to the officer’s supervisor. Also, you can file a complaint with the body that oversees the police. See our information on complaints against the RCMP or complaints against the municipal police.
Alternatively, you can take steps to charge the person yourself. We explain how shortly.
Step 3. The Crown decides whether to approve charges
If the police recommend charges, Crown counsel will review the report from the police. The Crown will decide whether to approve (or lay) charges against the person.
In making their decision, a Crown prosecutor will consider:
- Is there is a substantial likelihood of conviction based on the evidence in the report from the police? In other words, is there a strong, solid case to present in court?
- If yes, is a prosecution required in the public interest? Crown counsel consider many factors in deciding this, including how serious the allegations are.
If Crown counsel decides to lay charges, the charges are set out in a document called an information.
If the prosecutor decides not to charge the person
If Crown counsel decides not to charge the person, you can contact the prosecutor’s office to discuss their decision. Under the law in BC, a victim of crime has the right to know the reasons for a decision about charges. As well, under Canadian law a victim of crime has the right, if they ask, to information about the status and outcome of the investigation into the crime.
Listen carefully to the prosecutor. If you have new information, tell them. The prosecutor may send you back to the police.
After reporting a crime, if you don’t hear whether the person has been charged, you can follow up by contacting the police officer who took your report.
Step 4. Laying a “private information” to charge the person yourself
If the police don’t recommend a criminal charge or the Crown decides not to lay charges, there is another process available.
Any person who has reasonable grounds to believe another person has committed a criminal offence may provide that information to a justice of the peace in order to have the person brought to court. This is called laying a private information.
The justice of the peace is a court officer who deals with process matters. They will ask you to swear an oath or affirm the truth of the contents of the information.
If the offence is an indictable (serious) offence under the Criminal Code, the justice of the peace has to refer the information to a judge to consider whether to have the person brought to court.
The Crown considers the charges
The Crown reviews any private information received by a justice of the peace. The Crown considers whether their charge assessment standard has been met. They may refer the matter to police. If the Crown concludes there is not a substantial likelihood of conviction, they will direct a stay of proceedings (meaning the Crown won’t go ahead with prosecuting the charge).
Appearing before a judge at a process hearing
If the prosecutor does not stay the charge, the next step involves appearing before a judge at a process hearing. You must convince the judge to order the person charged to attend court. The judge can issue an arrest warrant or a summons to do this. You must show the judge there is some evidence the person committed each part of the crime (this is called a prima facie case). If you do that, the prosecutor may ask the judge to adjourn (postpone) the case so the police can investigate.
After the police investigate, if the prosecutor concludes there is a strong, solid case to present in court, the prosecutor will take over.
If the prosecutor decides the case isn’t strong enough and directs a stay of proceedings, you can call the Crown counsel office and ask to speak to the prosecutor’s supervisor to discuss their decision.
What happens if the person is charged with a crime?
If a criminal charge is approved, and the case goes to a trial, you may have to testify as a witness, where you will tell the court what you know. See our information on being a witness. If you suffered financial loss, you may be able to get compensation if the accused is found guilty. The judge can make a restitution order, requiring the accused to pay money to someone who suffered a loss.
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