Young People and Criminal Law
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Yulina Wang, Barrister & Solicitor, and James Henry and Lindsay Wold, Crown Counsel in August 2017.
Learn the rights a young person has in dealing with the police or if they’re charged with a crime. Also, some key options for young people in getting legal help.
What you should know
The legal framework
There are two main laws that come into play when talking about young people and criminal law.
The most important is the federal criminal law called the Criminal Code. It covers common crimes like shoplifting, breaking and entering, car theft, and assault. It also covers the most serious crimes, like murder. (Another federal law covers illegal drugs.)
The second key law is the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which controls how federal criminal laws (such as the Criminal Code) apply to young people between ages 12 and 17.
There are also provincial laws that cover many other offences, such as drinking under age, trespassing, and breaking traffic laws.
If the police stop you and question you
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees basic rights to everyone in Canada — including young people.
On arrest or detention
One important protection is the right to legal advice if police arrest or detain you. Being detained is when you are kept somewhere you don’t want to be. You have the right to call a lawyer as soon as possible if the police arrest or detain you. Below, we suggest options to find a lawyer.
Police can only detain you if there are reasonable grounds (good reasons) to suspect you are connected to a crime. You have the right to know why you are being detained.
The right to remain silent
You also have the right to remain silent. If the police question you, you don't have to say anything. Anything you do say can be used against you as evidence in court.
You don’t even have to tell police your name, but it may make the interaction end more quickly or go more smoothly if you give them your name and address. (The exception to this is if you’re driving. When you’re driving, you must identify yourself to the police.)
In other situations, if the police are just making conversation, you can politely ask them, “Am I free to go?” If the answer is yes, you can leave. If the answer is no, you are being detained.
If you are arrested
If the police arrest you, they must tell you what offence they think you committed. They can’t take you into custody unless they arrest you. The police must give you a chance to call a lawyer as soon as reasonably possible after they arrest you.
If the police arrest you, they must immediately tell you that:
- you do not have to say anything or answer any questions
- anything you do say can be used against you as evidence in court
- you have the right to speak to a lawyer and a parent or other adult before you say anything
- a lawyer or an adult must be with you when you make a statement to police, unless you choose not to have that adult with you
If you are arrested, you should speak to a lawyer before deciding whether to give a statement to the police. Below, we suggest options to find a lawyer.
If you are charged with an offence but not arrested
The police can recommend you be charged with an offence and not arrest you. In that case, they give you an appearance notice that says when you must go to court. Or, the police can get the court to issue a summons, and have it delivered to you at home. Like an appearance notice, a summons will tell you when and where you have to go to court.
You may also have to go to the police station at a specific time to get fingerprinted and photographed. The police have the right to take pictures and fingerprints only for certain offences. Talk to a lawyer before you go to the police station for pictures and fingerprints, to see if you must go.
For more, see our information on if you receive an appearance notice or summons.
If the police charge you with an offence, you must give them your name and address, but that’s all. If you're a young person charged with a federal offence, you have a right to legal representation. Below, we suggest options to find a lawyer.
Who can help
Finding a lawyer
If you're a young person charged with a federal offence, you have a right to legal representation. Contact Legal Services Society to see if you qualify for a free lawyer through legal aid.
- Call 604-408-2172 (Greater Vancouver) or 1-866-577-2525 (toll-free)
- Visit website
You can also find a lawyer through the Lawyer Referral Service.
- Call 604-687-3221 (Greater Vancouver) or 1-800-663-1919 (toll-free)
- Visit website
If you are in police custody
If you are arrested and in police custody, you can call the Brydges Line to speak with a lawyer. This is a free 24-hour emergency number for legal advice.
- Call 1-866-458-5500 (toll-free)
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