Though we may love the fast patter of a good legal drama, when it comes to actually navigating the criminal justice system, the very specific terms used by lawyers, judges, and police can pose a serious problem for people who have been charged or detained by law enforcement.
To help you get a better understanding of what some of this legal jargon means for ordinary people, here is a short, essential glossary of common terms related to criminal defence used in Canada’s legal system.
Accused: An individual who has been formally charged with a crime by law enforcement officers.
Acquittal: A court’s decision not to find the accused guilty of a criminal offense. When a person is acquitted, they are free to carry on with their life and will have no criminal record.
Adjournment: The decision to postpone a court hearing to a later date.
Administrative Offence: A non-criminal offence that regulates conduct in the public interest, such as securities regulations. Regulatory offences are often dealt with at administrative tribunals and not in a court setting.
Arrest: When a person accused of an offence is taken into police custody to be fingerprinted, photographed, and searched. In the case of minor offences, the police may place charges but not place the accused under arrest.
Arrest Warrant: A piece of paper signed by a judge and issued by a provincial court or justice authorizing law enforcement to arrest someone. First-instance warrants are issued when an individual has been charged but cannot be located, while bench warrants are issued if the accused fails to show up in court for a scheduled appearance. If you want to know whether there is an arrest warrant in your name, you can inquire through a criminal defence lawyer like Jeffrey I. Reisman.
Charge: A formal accusation of a criminal offence. This is usually the first step in the prosecution process.
Charge Withdrawn/Dismissed: When a formal accusation is withdrawn (for example, due to lack of evidence).
Charge Stayed: When charges are put on ‘pause’ for a year. During this period, they can be brought back — for example, if you commit a further offence.
Conditional Sentence: In cases where a sentence would carry a punishment of imprisonment for under two years, the judge may choose to hand down a conditional sentence that does not involve imprisonment.
Conviction: When an accused person is convicted, it means they will have a criminal record, which can only be expunged through a pardon. A person who has been found guilty will not be convicted if the judge instead chooses to give them a conditional or absolute discharge.
Counsel: A legal representative like a Toronto criminal defence lawyer who works on your behalf, especially in court proceedings.
Crown Attorney/Prosecutor: The legal officer working on behalf of the government. In Canada, a division is recognized between federal prosecutors, who handle immigration and drug-related charges, and provincial prosecutors, who handle criminal cases and some provincial offences. Some defence lawyers, like Jeff Reisman Law, previously served as prosecutors and can bring that experience to bear in their work as counsel.
Defendant: A person who has been accused of a crime.
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Interim Release (Bail): When someone charged with a crime is released between committal for trial and the trial’s completion. The decision to offer interim release is made within 24 hours of charges being laid in a process known as a bail hearing after which the accused may be released under certain conditions, which might include a financial payment. In the case of serious crimes, like murder, the accused will likely be denied bail and held in custody until their trial. It is always a good idea for the accused to have legal counsel present at a hearing.
Mandatory Minimum Penalties: Canada’s Criminal Code dictates that judges must provide minimum penalties for certain offences. In many cases, these offences also require a minimum period of time to be served in prison (for example, importing or exporting more than 1kg of Schedule I drugs comes with a mandatory minimum penalty of 2 years).
Plea Court: Following the bail hearing, a plea court will meet to hear the defendant’s response to the charges. The defendant will enter a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty,” and this will determine whether the case goes to trial or not. During the period of time between a bail hearing and a plea court, it is advisable for the accused to meet regularly with their criminal defence lawyer to craft a plan for how they will proceed. The accused is never required to enter a guilty plea, and even in cases like impaired driving over 80, conviction is not inevitable.
Probation: A court may decide to release a person into the community, whether they’ve served jail time or not, so long as they agree to abide by certain conditions listed in the probation order.
Recidivism: The tendency for people to revert to old patterns of criminal behaviour once they have been released from prison. Reducing recidivism rates is a stated priority of the Canadian justice system, and especially in the case of youth, a desire to keep young people from re-offending can impact the kinds of sentencing options that may be available.
The first step to knowing your legal rights is having a basic comprehension of the language used in Canada’s criminal justice system. This can help you handle encounters with the police with a greater degree of confidence, and to understand the implications of criminal charges and penalties.
But if you are charged with an offence, your best defence will be having a knowledgeable criminal defence attorney on hand who can advise you as to the best way to proceed.
With thousands of cases won and nearly two decades’ experience as a practicing lawyer, Jeff Reisman Law can help you navigate Canada’s complicated legal system so you get the best possible outcome for your case.