I've Been Charged with a Criminal (or Youth) Offence and Have to Go to Court
If you are charged with a criminal or youth offence, it means that, unless you are sent for diversion, restorative justice or alternative measures (see the section in this Guide titled "I've been offered 'diversion'"), you will have to resolve the charge in court. You can do this either by pleading guilty and being sentenced by a judge, or by pleading not guilty and going to trial. If you are found guilty at trial, you will be sentenced by a judge.
- If the police want to speak with you, you have the right to contact a lawyer for advice first. Most criminal lawyers will do this at no charge (and you can find a lawyer through the list provided at the jail, a phone book, or an internet search). If you are under arrest, the police must help you make a telephone call to a lawyer, even if you don't have a lawyer picked out. If you are under arrest, you can also call a lawyer through the Brydges Line at 1-866-458-5500. This service is provided free of charge by the Legal Services Society and is available across the province, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is almost always advisable that you refuse to answer questions or discuss the case with the police and certainly not before speaking with a lawyer. If you are arrested, the police must provide reasonable access to a counsel of your choice or to legal aid.
- If you cannot afford a lawyer on your own, see if you qualify for legal aid representation. (See legal aid representation in the Resource List for information about applying for legal aid.) If you qualify, the Legal Services Society will appoint a lawyer to advise you and represent you in court. Note that you may not be able to apply for legal aid representation until you have attended your first appearance in court (see Step 4 below) and found out the Crown Counsel's initial sentencing position.
- Go to court on the date shown on your promise to appear or other police release document.
- At this first appearance in court, Crown Counsel will give you a copy of the police file, also known as your disclosure. This package will contain the details of the charges against you. It includes the circumstances (police report) from the Crown Counsel (prosecutor) and the information (charges) from the court clerk. Ask for an adjournment (delay) for two weeks or more so you can consult with a lawyer. If there is a duty counsel — a lawyer who helps people who don't have their own lawyer — at the courthouse, he or she can help you with this step.
What happens next
Once you have decided how you will plead (guilty or not guilty), you or your lawyer will have to tell the judge. If you plead guilty, you may be sentenced right away or the Court may put your sentencing to a different date in a different courtroom. If you plead not guilty, the court will hold an arraignment hearing and ask both the prosecutor and you or your lawyer how long the trial will take. Then you will have to set a date for the trial. (The process is more complicated for indictable charges such as aggravated assault or breaking and entering a dwelling; indictable offences are considered more serious than summary offences.)
At trial, the Crown will call witnesses that you or your lawyer will be able to cross-examine. You can then call witnesses (possibly including yourself) if you wish. After all of the witnesses have testified, you can summarize your position and the facts and law which support it. At the end of the trial, the judge will either find you guilty or not guilty. If you are found guilty, the judge will sentence you. The sentencing usually happens right away, but may be delayed to another date in more serious or complicated cases.
If you are found not guilty, the matter will be over and you will be free to leave the court. Any bail conditions that were imposed on you expire. You will not have a criminal record in that case.
|If you can't make it to court for one of your court appearances, you may be allowed to get criminal duty counsel to go to court for you. Call your local legal aid office or the Legal Services Society Call Centre at 1-866-577-2525 to find out duty counsel schedules.|
Where to get help
See the Resource List in this Guide for a list of helpful resources. Your best bets are:
- Legal aid representation, to see if you qualify for legal aid.
- Criminal duty counsel, for assistance on the day you have to appear in court.
- Native Courtworkers and First Nations Court Duty Counsel for aboriginal clients.
- Access Pro Bono, Lawyer Referral Service, and private bar lawyers.
- The Clicklaw common questions "I've been charged with a crime. How do I defend myself?" and "What does the judge consider in sentencing an Aboriginal person?".
- The fact sheet series "Defending Yourself" from Legal Services Society.
Before meeting with a lawyer or advocate, complete the form Preparing for Your Interview included in this Guide. Make sure you bring copies of all documents relating to your case.
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Lisa J. Helps, May 2017.|
|Legal Help for British Columbians © Cliff Thorstenson and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|
In law, in British Columbia a person under the age of 19.
A person appointed by the federal or provincial government to manage and decide court proceedings in an impartial manner, independent of influence by the parties, the government, or agents of the government. The decisions of a judge are binding upon the parties to the proceeding, subject to appeal.
The testing of the claims at issue in a court proceeding at a formal hearing before a judge with the jurisdiction to hear the proceeding. The parties present their evidence and arguments to the judge, who then makes a determination of the parties' claims against one another that is final and binding on the parties unless appealed. See "action," "appeal," "argument," "claim," "evidence," and "jurisdiction."
A person licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. See "barrister and solicitor."
Under the Divorce Act, the schedule of a parent's time with their children under an order or agreement. Access usually refers to the schedule of the parent with the least amount of time with the child. See "custody."
A lawyer; the advice given by a lawyer to their client.
In law, the federal and provincial governments and their departments and agencies. Lawyers employed by the federal and provincial governments to prosecute criminal offences.
The suspension of a hearing or trial, usually when the hearing or trial cannot proceed on the date scheduled or because it cannot complete within the time scheduled, normally until a specific date.
A lawyer paid by legal aid or the government who provides limited legal services to people on the day that they are in court.
In law, any proceeding before a judicial official to determine questions of law and questions of fact, including the hearing of an application and the hearing of a trial. See "decision" and "evidence."
In law, a court proceeding; a lawsuit; an action; a cause of action; a claim. Also the historic decisions of the court. See "action," "case law, " "court proceeding," and "precedent."
A lawyer or a person other than a lawyer who helps clients with legal issues; to argue a position on behalf of a client.