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Criminal Justice System 101: Understanding the Law in Canada

Canada has one of the world’s most developed legal systems, and criminal justice is no exception. As one of its most important aspects, learning about how the law views criminal justice can make any interactions with the legal system much more straightforward. In today’s blog, What The Law will give you an overview of what the criminal justice system is and how it works.

Criminal or Civil Law?

Before we can explore the criminal justice system, we must first understand what makes it unique. In Canada, there are two types of law that are often confused by the general public; these are Civil Law and Criminal Law.

Protecting Your Property

If you have ‘peaceful possession’ of your property (e.g. you are the homeowner) you may be justified in using reasonable force to protect it from intruders or those that seek to harm you or other inhabitants. This applies to using ‘appropriate force’ to remove trespassers from your property. However, the safest decision in these scenarios is typically to remove yourself from the trespassers’ or aggressors’ reach and to contact emergency services as soon as possible.

Civil Law

Not to be confused with Quebec’s Civil Law, which differs from the Common Law system just in the rest of Canada, Civil Law essentially means any accusation or prosecution is done privately between two people or organizations.

Under Civil Law, you will often hear the person accused being referred to as a defendant and the person making the accusation being known as the plaintiff. Civil cases commonly appear in situations such as personal injury, where a person files a lawsuit against another for their injury.

Criminal Law

Criminal Law operates differently from civil cases. Instead, it is the state, otherwise known as the Crown, that prosecutes a person accused of a crime according to a specific act or Canada’s Criminal Code. This is because a criminal act such as murder or theft is deemed to be an attack on society and on public good.

Is Criminal Law Provincial or Federal?

Being a large nation spread over many provinces and territories, Canada has different levels of government to help cater to the widespread population. The federal government handles Canada-wide affairs, while territorial and provincial governments such as Ontario, deal with more local needs such as healthcare and education. However, there are certain areas where they overlap, including on the law. When it comes to criminal law, both the federal and provincial governments and their courts have a role to play depending on the nature of the crime.

It is provincial courts that handle the majority of criminal cases, as well as personal issues such as family law. Due to this responsibility, it is the province that chooses the judges that will sit in court and decide upon criminal cases.

The federal government is responsible for Superior Courts, this is where the most severe or serious of criminal cases or appeals are managed. As the name implies, Superior Courts are able to act over provincial or territorial courts, including Ontario’s own criminal court and judges are appointed federally.

Criminal Code

The Criminal Code acts as a point of legal reference for criminal offences and legal proceedings. It defines an offence and under what situation it might it occur, as well as the range of penalties if the accused is found guilty.

Types of Criminal Offences

The Criminal Code lists many different offences that are all unique to one another, covering everything from assault and theft to impaired driving and terrorism. Despite their diversity, most criminal offences can be divided into two distinct categories. These are Summary Offences and Indictable Offences.

Summary Offence

A Summary Offence is usually a minor criminal act that does not severely harm anyone involved. You might be charged with a summary offence if your criminal act was a nuisance to society. This might include trespassing, harassing others, reckless driving, and public sexual displays.

Indictable Offence

Indictable Offences are more serious criminal acts that have harmed or endangered others.

Although there is a distinction between the two offences, sometimes they can overlap. This is known as a hybrid offence, where the prosecutor will choose the type of offence based on the nature of the criminal act. For example, certain forms of assault might be viewed as a summary offence rather than an indictable offence if the victim was left mostly unharmed.

If you are accused of an indictable offence, there are three pathways for your case to go. You may have your case:

  1. Heard in a provincial court by judge
  2. Heard in a superior court by a judge
  3. Heard in a superior court by a judge and a jury

To ensure the accused’s charge is valid and worthy of hearing, a preliminary hearing is sometimes held where it will be determined if the case has sufficient evidence to go forward. The judge will decide whether to dismiss or continue the case with a trial. If continued, the accused and their indictable offence charge will be sent for trial.

You can learn more about indictable offences here.

Criminal Trials

The criminal trial determines the judgment on the accused’s reported crime. This where evidence and any witnesses will be examined and both legal representatives will argue the case for their prospective client. 

It is worth noting that despite being called the ‘accused’, the individual is actually presumed innocent until there is reasonable evidence or belief they are guilty of a criminal offence. This to protect those who may be wrongly accused of a crime on the pure basis of assumption, as well as protecting people against discrimination. The accused has rights that are granted by both the common law system and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Criminal Court Decisions

When it comes to making a decision on your case in a criminal trial, the judge will decide from two options. 

The first is that the accused is found not guilty of the crime and should not be convicted. This is known as being acquitted and essentially means they are free to leave court and return back to normal life.

The second is that the accused is guilty. If the accused is guilty, the judge will decide on a sentence that is appropriate for the crime. It is possible that the judge may even decide that the accused is guilty of a different act that incurs different penalties. An example is murder charges resulting in a person being convicted for manslaughter. Penalties for a crime vary significantly, ranging from a small fine and community service to being imprisoned on a life sentence. 

Learn More About Criminal Law with What The Law

If you are interested in learning more about Canada’s Criminal Justice System, check out our blog. We explore both general criminal law topics as well as local topics surfacing in Toronto, the Greater Toronto Area and Southern Ontario. What The Law strives to ensure that the public is informed about their rights and criminal law - including when you should question it.

Need a criminal lawyer in Toronto or the GTA? We are here to help - visit our contact page and tell us what happened.

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