This information is about adults (people over age 18) who are involved in criminal cases. For information about youth (children between 12 and 17 years) involved in criminal cases, click here.
Three important rules in criminal law
There are three important rules in Canadian criminal law:
- An accused person is presumed to be innocent until he or she is proven guilty at a fair trial.
- The Crown prosecutor has to prove that the accused is guilty. The accused does not have to prove that he or she is innocent.
- The Crown prosecutor must prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the accused will not be found guilty if the judge is left with a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime.
The Provincial Court of BC is the first level of court, where most criminal cases start. If the crime is less serious (like shoplifting), the trial will be held in Provincial Court. This is called a “summary offence”.
If the crime is serious (like murder), the crime is called an “indictable offence”. The accused pleads guilty or not guilty in Provincial Court. For most indictable offences, the accused can then choose whether to have the trial before a Provincial Court judge, or before a judge or jury in Supreme Court.
A jury is a group of 12 Canadian citizens who are chosen (at random from the voters’ list) to hear the trial with a judge. After the Crown prosecutor and defence lawyer have finished arguing their positions, the judge tells the jury about the law that applies to the case. Then the jury meets in a separate room in the courthouse to decide whether the Crown prosecutor has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. The jury’s discussions are absolutely private. All the jury members have to agree on their decision. If not, there will be another trial, with a new jury.
An accused can defend himself or herself without a lawyer in a criminal trial, but it is difficult. Someone accused of a crime should talk to a lawyer before making that decision.
Other criminal courts
The Provincial Court has created some special courts to deal with special cases, like First Nations persons, mentally challenged people, and drug or alcohol addicted offenders. These courts work with social and health services to find the best solution to the problem.
Vancouver's Downtown Community Court
This court deals with offenders in downtown Vancouver who have health and social problems, including alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty. Its goal is to reduce crime by finding the best way to deal with the accused’s problem (like sending the accused for treatment for drug addiction).
Victoria’s Integrated Court
This court’s goal is similar to the Vancouver’s Community Court (above).
First Nations Court
The First Nations Court is in New Westminster, BC. Its goal is to address the needs of First Nations (Aboriginal) communities, particularly when sentencing an offender. A group of First Nations elders guides the court. In addition to punishing the offender, the focus is on healing the victims and the community affected by the crime.
Drug Treatment Court
The goal of the court is to reduce heroin and cocaine use in adults charged with offences that were caused by drug addiction.