A Note on Language
In this toolkit, we will sometimes use the word woman/women and feminine pronouns for simplicity and to recognize the significant impact technology-facilitated violence has on women and girls. We recognize that TFGBV also impacts trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit people. We hope that all people impacted by TFGBV will find these documents useful.
Reporting a crime to the police can be a confusing process full of unfamiliar legal terms. If you are the victim of a crime, including technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV), you should consider reaching out to a lawyer, legal advocate, victim service worker, or anti-violence organization. See Technology Safety and Victim/Survivor Resources and Legal and Victim Service Supports and Resources, as these resources can help you prepare for and better understand the criminal justice system.
While crimes are committed against individual victims, the law considers criminal offences to have been committed against society as a whole. Crown prosecutors do not represent individual victims; they perform their function on behalf of the community. Crown Counsel are prosecutors who work for the provincial or territorial prosecution service, under the mandate of the Ministry of Attorney General. For more information on the criminal justice system, see Legal Protections for TFGBV: What Laws Apply to You?
Unlike civil law, which varies significantly across the country (see Definitions of Legal Terms: Civil and Family Law), criminal law applies across the country and as such the information in this document should be relevant regardless of where in Canada you are located.
This document provides information regarding legal terms that are referenced frequently in criminal law matters.
DEFINITIONS OF LEGAL TERMS
- Absolute Discharge
If the accused has been found guilty of the crime(s) they were charged with, the judge may still decide not to sentence them. This usually only happens in the case where it is in the community’s best interest and the person has committed a less serious crime. In these circumstances, the offender does not receive a sentence, does not have the offence appear on a criminal record, and does not have conditions on their release.
- Acquittal / Acquitted
If the accused is acquitted of an offence or receives an acquittal, that means that they are not guilty of the crime. In other words, Crown counsel was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime(s) they were charged with. The accused is free to go when they have been acquitted and will not have a criminal record for the offence.
- Actus Reus
When a person is charged with committing a crime, Crown counsel must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused did it. The actus reus is the voluntary action (i.e. physically doing something, such as stabbing a person) or omission (i.e. not doing something, such as neglect) that Crown counsel must prove the accused did for the accused to be convicted of an offence. The actus reus varies from offence to offence, but every offence in the Criminal Code has an actus reus.
- Adjourned / Adjournment
- Admissible / Admit / Admitted / Admissibility
Whether evidence will be considered by the judge or jury will depend on whether it is admissible. There are numerous rules governing the admissibility of evidence in legal proceedings. For more information, see Submitting Evidence in Court, Authentication of Digital Evidence, and Objections to Evidence.
An affidavit is a written statement of facts and evidence by an individual that they swear to be true. Victims in criminal cases may be asked to provide an affidavit about what happened to them, which will be submitted to the court by Crown counsel. However, it is more common that victims and other witnesses will be asked to testify in court, telling their story in person to the judge or jury.
- Affidavit Evidence
- Affirm / Affirmation
Before a witness provides their testimony, they will be asked to swear an oath or make an affirmation where they promise to tell the truth. Some people will simply promise to tell the truth, while others will swear on a religious book or item, such as the Bible or the Qur’an. Depending on the religious book or item, you may have to provide the court with notice.
- Aggravating Circumstances
Aggravating circumstances are aspects of the crime that make it particularly bad. Aggravating circumstances are considered after an accused has been convicted of an offence and may lead to a higher sentence.
Example: If someone was in a position of trust, such as a parent, and they committed a crime that hurt a person they were supposed to be caring for, such as their child, this could be an aggravating circumstance. It makes the crime worse than if it had been committed against someone who they were not in a position of trust towards.
Some factors must always be considered as aggravating by a sentencing judge – these are set out in Section 718.2 of the Criminal Code. Mitigating circumstances are the opposite of aggravating circumstances, as they may lead to a lower sentence.
The accused is considered innocent until proven guilty. Until they are proven guilty, the crimes they are said to have committed are “alleged,” which means that someone has said they committed the crime, but it has not been proven. The accusation that an accused committed a crime is only an allegation at this point as it has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
An appeal is a request for a higher level of court to review a decision made by a lower level of court. Courts will not always grant an appeal; there must be a good reason for an appeal to be allowed, such as if the judge made a mistake about the law or the facts of the case.
If an accused is found guilty, they may appeal this decision and ask a higher level of court to overturn their conviction, or they may appeal the sentence they were given for that crime. If an accused is acquitted, the Crown may appeal.
An appearance is a time when someone needs to be in court. For example, for a scheduled court appearance, the accused must be in court at a specific time and date.
- Appearance Notice
An appearance notice is a notice that an accused is given before they may be formally charged with committing a crime. It usually describes the crime(s) the accused might be charged with and asks the accused to appear in court at a particular time.
An argument is what a lawyer tells the court about why they should either convict or acquit the accused, why the accused should receive a particular sentence, etc. The defence counsel and the Crown counsel will make arguments to the court to try to persuade the court that their opinion of how the case should be decided is correct. They must use evidence, facts, and laws (including legislation and applicable case law) to support their arguments.
An arraignment is when the accused pleads guilty or not guilty. This might happen at an arraignment hearing in court or may be made in writing by filling out a consent arraignment form if the Crown counsel and defence counsel agree the matter is ready for trial (if the accused pleads not guilty) or sentencing (if the accused pleads guilty).
Someone is arrested when a legal authority, usually the police, restrains them because they have been charged with or are suspected of a specific crime. The accused has several rights when they are arrested. For example, they must be told why they are being arrested and that they have a right to speak with a lawyer. To learn more about these rights, you can see a guide to rights on arrest created by the BC Civil Liberties Association.
The accused goes to a bail hearing and a judge decides whether to release them on bail or not. If the accused is granted bail, they will not have to stay in a correctional centre while they wait for their trial, but can live in the community under certain conditions.
- Bail Hearing
A bail hearing is a court hearing where a judge will decide whether the accused should be kept in jail or if they can be released from custody while they wait for their trial. If the accused is released on bail, the court will give them rules, called conditions, they must follow, or risk being placed in jail.
- Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
In criminal law cases, the Crown counsel must show that the accused has committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt – this is the standard of proof. What this means is that the judge or jury must have no reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. If the judge or jury has any reasonable doubt, they acquit the accused.
- Burden of Proof
The burden of proof is the obligation on someone to prove their case in court. If the “burden of proof” is on you, this means that you must prove to the court that you are right about a particular issue. The other party does not have an obligation to prove this part of the case.
The “burden of proof” is almost always on the Crown counsel in criminal cases. This means that they must prove to the court that the accused committed the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. On rare occasions, the accused may have a reverse onus, where the accused bears the standard of proof in relation to some issue before the court.
A legal matter that is addressed in court. “Case” will sometimes be used interchangeably with lawsuit, litigation, and proceeding.
- Case Law
Case law includes previous legal decisions issued by judges. These previous decisions are also considered part of the “common law” and can be used to help your case in court. You can look up case law on databases, such as CanLII.
- Character Evidence
Character evidence is evidence that speaks to an individual’s character. For example, information implying that an individual is dishonest is character evidence. Character evidence is generally not allowed in court.
The charge is the specific statement of what criminal offence a person has been accused of committing. It is written down in an indictment. Once a person has been charged, the Crown counsel has officially accused them of committing a crime.
- Charter of Rights and Freedoms
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of the Canadian constitution. It defines the fundamental rights and freedoms people have in Canada. In some cases, the accused may argue that their Charter rights were violated. For example, if the police searched their home without a warrant or if a mandatory minimum sentence is an unfair sentence for the crime committed. If an accused is successful in arguing their Charter rights were violated, they may be entitled to remedies such as having relevant evidence excluded or an acquittal.
- Circumstantial Evidence
Circumstantial evidence is evidence that, if believed, would help the judge or jury infer that another fact is true. In other words, circumstantial evidence, unlike direct evidence, is evidence that indirectly proves a fact.
Circumstantial evidence can be helpful when one party does not have direct proof that an event happened.
Example: You are trying to prove that X stole your car. If you tell the court “X recently lost his car and asked me several times if he could have my car,” this is circumstantial evidence. Even if a judge decides that you are telling the truth, your statement does not directly prove that X actually stole your car. However, a judge might infer from this information that X stole your car because his car was recently stolen, and he wanted your car.
- Closing Statement
The portion of a trial where each side has the opportunity to summarize their case. They can also restate the strengths of their case and point out the weaknesses of the other party’s case. Final submissions are made after all the evidence has been presented.
- Committed for Trial
The community means the world outside of jail. For example, when a person is sentenced to a community sentence order, it means that they will live in the community under strict conditions, rather than in jail. They might live in their home or somewhere else during this time.
- Community Sentence
A community sentence is a type of sentence where the offender is not placed in custody but lives in the community. Community sentences include probation, conditional sentence orders, and suspended sentences. Also called a non-custodial sentence.
Complainant is a word used to describe the victim of a crime, usually the person who contacted police about the accused and caused them to commence an investigation into whether the accused committed a crime.
- Concurrent Sentence
If the offender has been convicted of several crimes in one trial, they will get separate sentences for each crime. The judge may order that those sentences are served concurrently, which means they will be served at the same time. For example, if a person was convicted of harassment and sentenced to one year in jail for that crime, and they were also convicted of luring a child and sentenced to one year in jail for that crime, the judge could order that the offender serve both at the same time (concurrently) so the total sentence would be one year in custody. This is in contrast to a consecutive sentence.
- Conditional Discharge
A conditional discharge involves an offender, who has been found guilty of an offence, having to abide by certain conditions as an alternative to prison. If they follow the rules, the conviction will be removed from their criminal record. If they breach the rules, they will be sentenced.
- Conditional Release
- Conditional Sentence Order
If an offender has been given a conditional sentence order, they will be released into the community but must follow certain rules, called conditions while they serve their sentence. This is commonly known as “house arrest.” If they breach the conditions of the order, they may go to prison. Unlike conditional discharge, convictions resulting in conditional sentence orders will be included on an offender’s criminal record.
Depending on the offence, conditions may include things like reporting to their probation officer, not using the Internet for anything but work, or being in their home except when going to medical appointments.
- Consecutive Sentence
If an offender has been convicted of several crimes in one trial, they will get separate sentences for each crime. The judge may order that those sentences be served consecutively, which means they will be served one after another. For example, if a person was convicted of criminal harassment and sentenced to one year in jail for that crime, and they were also convicted of luring a child and sentenced to one year in jail for that crime, the judge could order that the offender serve the sentences one after another (consecutively), so the offender would be in jail a total of two years. This is in contrast to a concurrent sentence.
- Contempt of Court
If someone doesn’t do something that the court orders them to do, or if they disobey the rules of the court, they may be found “in contempt of court.” Additionally, doing things that interfere with the court’s ability to function properly can also be considered contempt of court. An example of this would be if a person continuously lies or misleads the court. The consequences of being found in contempt of court can include fines or arrest.
If the accused has been convicted of a crime, that means the Crown counsel has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed the crime(s) they were charged with and they are guilty of that crime. They would then face a sentencing hearing and be sentenced for their crime(s).
- Correctional Centre
A correctional centre is a place where an offender who has been convicted of a crime spends any custodial sentence. It is what people normally call a jail or penitentiary. There are provincial and federal correctional centres.
- Correctional Service of Canada
The Correctional Service of Canada (“CSC”) is responsible for managing federal correctional centres and supervising offenders who are released under conditions in the community. The CSC publishes information for victims of crime here.
- Corroborating Evidence
Example: Witness A says they saw X steal your car and Witness B says the same thing. The evidence of A and B corroborate one another.
A count is an individual instance of a crime that a person has been charged with. For example, if the accused was charged with one instance of harassment and one instance of child luring, they would be facing two counts in their indictment.
- Court Clerk / Court Reporter
- Court Order
- Court Records
Credibility is how believable a person is. Judges and juries assess witnesses’ credibility by observing them giving testimony in court and interpreting evidence about them. If someone has good credibility, meaning they seem honest and reliable, their evidence is more likely to be believed by the judge or jury. If someone has bad credibility, their evidence is less likely to be believed. Depending on how credible a witness is, the court will be more or less likely to give their testimony weight when deciding the case.
A crime is an act (something someone does) or omission (something someone does not do) that breaks a law in the Criminal Code. A crime is seen as a crime against society, rather than only a crime against the person or people who were victimized by the crime. This is why Crown counsel represents society, not the victim.
- Crime Against a Person
A crime against a person is a crime that involves hurting a person or threatening to hurt a person. This would include things like sexual assault or criminal harassment.
- Crime Against Property
A crime against property is a crime that involves taking, attempting to take, or purposely damaging another person’s property. This would include things like stealing a car or breaking someone’s window.
- Criminal Case
- Criminal Code
- Criminal Law
- Criminal Record
A criminal record is a list of someone’s involvement with the criminal justice system. Anytime someone is charged with or convicted of a crime after the age of 12, it is recorded on this record. Sometimes the courts will look at a person’s past criminal record when they are sentencing an offender who has been found guilty of a crime.
- Criminal Record Check
A criminal record check is a request from the police or the offender to look up a person’s criminal history.
Every time a witness finishes giving evidence in court during direct examination, the other party will get an opportunity to ask them questions. This process is called “cross-examination.” For example, if the Crown counsel asked the victim to testify in court, the defence counsel or accused would cross-examine them. The Crown counsel would also ask the victim questions in what is called the direct examination.
The purpose of cross-examination is generally to poke holes in the witness’s version of events, or otherwise undermine their credibility. It gives the other side a chance to inquire as to the facts of the case and potentially cast doubt on the credibility of the witness and test the accuracy of their evidence. The rules for cross-examination are less strict than direct examination, as leading questions are allowed.
Crown is another word for the provincial, territorial, or federal government.
- Crown Counsel / Crown Prosecutor
- Custodial Sentence
When a person is being held in a correctional centre (i.e. jail) or police station, they are in custody.
- Dangerous Offender
If an offender has been convicted of a violent and/or sexual offence, and if they have a high risk of committing more crimes in the future, the court can designate them as a dangerous offender. This is a fairly rare designation, as someone designated a dangerous offender may be detained for an indefinite period, meaning they will remain in federal custody for the rest of their life or until they no longer pose an undue risk to society. More information on dangerous offenders is available here.
A decision is a conclusion a judge comes to at the end of a trial, after both parties have had a chance to present their arguments and evidence. A decision can also be made concerning a specific proceeding within a trial, instead of being a conclusion on the trial as a whole. For example, a decision can be made about whether evidence is admissible or not. Also called a judgment.
- Defence Counsel
- Degree of Responsibility
The degree of responsibility is the extent to which an offender was morally responsible for the crime. The court will look at things like the nature of the crime, how it was committed, in what manner, and how deliberate or planned it was to determine the degree of responsibility of the offender. This will impact the offender’s sentence if they are convicted.
To denounce something is to say it is wrong in public. The court may denounce the offender’s actions by imposing a high sentence.
- Detained in Custody
Detained in custody means the accused is being held in jail.
- Deter / Deterrence
- Direct Evidence
Direct evidence is evidence that, if believed, would help prove a fact without the need for further inferences. Direct evidence, unlike circumstantial evidence, is evidence that directly proves a fact.
Example: If you tell the court “I saw X breaking into my car and driving off with it,” this would be direct evidence that X stole your car. If a judge decides that you are telling the truth, then your statement by itself is direct proof that X stole your car. The judge does not need to make any other assumptions or inferences to come to that conclusion.
- Direct Examination / Examination-in-Chief
Oral evidence is initially presented to the court through a process called “direct examination,” where the witness answers questions in court. A party or their lawyer will question their own witnesses. For example, if Crown counsel asks the victim to testify in court, they will ask them questions through direct examination.
The purpose of direct examination is to allow a witness to tell a story in their own words. Leading questions are not allowed. After direct examination, the other side will have a chance to conduct a cross-examination.
The accused’s case can be “discharged” if there is not enough evidence for Crown counsel to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offence. The accused can also receive an absolute or conditional discharge even if they are found guilty of a crime, which means the judge decides that a conviction or criminal record is not necessary for this case.
Crown counsel must disclose any information they have about the case against the accused so that the accused can properly defend themselves. This means they have to turn over all relevant evidence, even if they don’t intend to rely on it or it is harmful to their case. This is process is called disclosure.
Discretion means that a person has a choice about how to make a decision. For example, a judge usually has discretion when deciding what type of sentence, the offender should face. If an offence carries a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge does not have the discretion to impose a lower sentence than the mandatory minimum.
A document can refer to a wide range of types of evidence, including evidence recorded on paper or any digital device. Documents include USB drives, photos, videos, and emails. They are usually used as evidence in court proceedings.
- Domestic Violence Court
Some provinces and territories have special courts dedicated to cases of domestic violence. These courts are generally aimed at ensuring better intervention and the possibility of rehabilitation for perpetrators. There are domestic violence courts in Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, PEI, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon. There are no specialized domestic violence courts in BC, Newfoundland and Labrador, or Nunavut.
- Dual Offences
A dual or hybrid offence is an offence that can either be a summary or an indictable offence. Crown counsel can choose whether to proceed with the offences as either a summary (i.e. less serious) or indictable (i.e. more serious) offence.
- Duty Counsel
Duty counsel is a lawyer who provides limited but free legal advice to the accused. This is usually limited to a bail hearing or the accused’s first hearing. Duty counsel usually does not represent the accused at trial.
The term “elect” is used when there is an opportunity to make a choice. For example, the accused may elect whether to have a jury trial or judge-alone trial. They may also be able to elect which court their case will be tried in.
Evidence is information presented to the court by the parties of a lawsuit or legal proceeding. Evidence is used to help prove the facts of someone’s case. A judge will consider all the relevant evidence that has been presented by both sides in determining the outcome of the case. For more information about evidence in the legal process, see: Submitting Evidence in Court, Authentication of Digital Evidence, and Objections to Evidence . See also: affidavit evidence, character evidence, circumstantial evidence, corroborating evidence, direct evidence, expert evidence, forensic evidence, hearsay evidence, opinion evidence, oral evidence, and similar fact evidence.
Examination is the act of asking witnesses questions to receive their evidence. In criminal trials, Crown counsel, defence counsel, or the accused (if they are self-represented) ask witnesses questions. See also: cross-examination, direct examination, and re-examination.
- Expert Evidence / Expert Opinion
Expert evidence is an exception to the rule that prohibits opinion evidence from being used in court. Qualified experts with special knowledge of something are allowed to give opinions on things within their expertise. The courts have specific rules about expert evidence, which you will need to familiarize yourself with if you or the other side intends to rely on expert evidence.
Expert evidence is useful in cases that deal with issues that an ordinary person would not know a lot about. Cases involving medical injuries or complicated technology are often hard for an ordinary person to understand and will require an expert witness to explain these issues to the court.
- Expert Witness
A witness who gives expert evidence relating to a lawsuit or legal proceeding. Experts are allowed to give their opinion on a fact in issue. Expert witnesses only give opinions regarding issues that require special skills or knowledge to understand.
- Federal Correctional Centre
A federal correctional centre is sometimes called a penitentiary. It is where offenders who have been sentenced to more than two years in custody will serve their sentence. This is usually for more serious crimes.
- Federal Custody
- File / Submit
Giving the court your documents to keep on file. Documents can be filed in person at the courthouse of your choice, or you can file your documents online through e-filing.
- Final Submission
See closing statement.
- Forensic Evidence
This term may be used to refer to evidence that is found at the crime scene. It sometimes requires some sort of science or technology to examine it.
For example, blood tests or searching the contents of a person’s phone.
- Gladue Report
A Gladue Report is a report that is prepared before an Indigenous offender is sentenced or sometimes before a bail hearing. These reports describe the offender’s background and life circumstances and are required because judges must consider imposing sentences other than imprisonment, paying particular attention to the circumstances of Indigenous offenders. These include circumstances such as racism, colonialism, residential schools, and the foster care systems. The report can influence the judge’s sentencing decision and may include options for restorative justice outside the traditional correctional system.
- Gravity of the Offence
The gravity of the offence is the seriousness of the offence. Judges consider the gravity of the offence in deciding an appropriate sentence for an offender. This includes the seriousness of the harm the crime inflicted on the victim and society.
- Guilty / Guilt
Any proceeding heard in court where a legal issue is determined.
- Hearsay Evidence
Hearsay is a statement made by a person who is not giving testimony to the court, that you want to rely on to prove that what that person said was true. Evidence that is hearsay is generally not admissible in court.
Example: Linda told you that she saw Brian run a red light. If you were to testify that Linda told you she saw Brian run a red light, this would be hearsay and would likely not be admissible. Instead, you should call Linda as a witness so that she can testify that she saw Brian run a red light.
To be hearsay, a statement must be offered for the truth of its contents. This means that the reason you are putting this evidence before the court is that you want the judge or jury to be convinced that what the person said was true.
Example: If you tell the court Linda told you she saw Brian run a red light because you want to prove that Brian ran a red light, hitting your car, you would be relying on this statement for the truth of its contents, making it hearsay. If you tell the court Linda told you she saw Brian run a red light because you want to prove that Linda is a liar (for example, if you know Linda was sleeping at the time Brian ran the red light), this evidence would not be hearsay. You would not be relying on it for the purpose of showing that Brian ran a red light (the truth of its contents), but rather another reason (to show Linda is a liar).
Generally, if a witness has firsthand knowledge related to the fact that they are trying to prove, then it will not be hearsay.
There are many exceptions that allow hearsay to be used in court. For more information about hearsay, see Submitting Evidence in Court.
- Hung Jury
A hung jury happens when a jury cannot make a unanimous (i.e., all the jurors agree) decision about whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. In these cases, a mistrial will be declared, a new trial will be ordered, and the case will be heard again.
- Hybrid Offences
See dual offences.
- Indefinite or Indeterminate Sentence
An indefinite or indeterminate sentence is a rare type of sentence where there is no end date for when the offender will be released from jail. Crown counsel has to make a special application for an offender to be declared a dangerous offender or a long-term offender to get this type of sentence.
- Indictable Offence
The Criminal Code defines which offences are summary and which are indictable (i.e., more serious). Sometimes Crown counsel has a choice in charging the crime as a summary or indictable offence; these are called dual procedure or hybrid offences.
- Initial Appearance
An initial appearance is the court appearance where the accused will be told the crimes they have been charged with. The information will be read to them, which lists every alleged crime. The accused will be asked if they are ready to plead guilty or not guilty, to elect which court the case will be tried in if it is a more serious offence, and whether the accused needs to speak to a lawyer first.
- Intermittent Sentence
An intermittent sentence is a sentence of 90 days or less where the judge allows the offender to serve their sentence not all at the same time. Often what this means is that the offender will serve their sentence in custody on the weekends over several months so they can keep their job. The offender will have to follow rules in their probation order while in the community.
- Joint Submission
A joint submission is an agreement between Crown counsel and the accused that recommends a particular sentence. The judge has the discretion to either accept this submission or reject it and order a different sentence. The judge might reject the joint submission if the recommended sentence might make people question the functioning of the justice system, usually because the sentence is too low for the crime.
A person who has been appointed to hear and make decisions on legal matters in a court.
- Judge-Alone Trial
- Judicial Interim Release
A judicial interim release is when a person has been accused of a crime but has not gone to trial yet and they are released from jail. The accused goes to a bail hearing and a judge can release them on judicial interim release. What this means is that the accused person does not have to stay in the correctional centre while they wait for their trial but can live in the community under certain conditions. Judicial interim release is also called bail.
- Judicial Stay of Proceedings
The authority a court has to make decisions about certain people, locations, and subject matters.
Someone who is a member of the jury.
Some criminal cases are heard before a jury rather than a judge alone. The jury is a group of 12 citizens who listen to the arguments made by the Crown counsel and defence counsel or the accused (if they are self-represented), listen to the evidence, follow the judge’s instructions about how to interpret the law, and make the final decision of whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. Accused people are generally allowed to elect whether to face a jury or a judge alone in a criminal trial.
- Jury trial
- Leading question
A leading question is a question that has the answer in the question. They are often, but not always, “yes” or “no” questions. For example: “You hit my car on November 3, didn’t you?” Generally, leading questions are allowed in cross-examination but not allowed in direct examination.
- Legal Proceeding
Legislation is written law. Legislation may also be referred to as statutes (or a statute), an Act (or acts), or an enactment (or enactments). The Criminal Code is a piece of legislation.
- Lesser Offence
A lesser offence is a less serious offence. Sometimes the accused will agree to plead guilty to a lesser offence than what they were initially charged with to avoid trial and to try to get a lower sentence.
- Life Sentence
An adult offender who has been convicted of first or second-degree murder can be given a life sentence by a judge. This means they are not eligible for parole until they have served 25 years in jail, for first-degree murder, and between 10 and 25 years for second-degree murder.
- Long Term Offender
An offender who has received a long-term offender designation will have committed a serious personal injury offence and is likely to re-offend. This means that the offender will be supervised in the community for a longer period than a typical offender, up to 10 years after they have served their custodial sentence. The offender will have to follow strict rules listed in their probation order.
- Maximum Sentence
- Mens Rea
When a person is accused of committing a crime, the Crown counsel must prove the accused knew what they were doing when the crime was allegedly committed. The mens rea is the “guilty mind.” In every criminal case, Crown counsel must prove the accused intentionally committed the crime or was reckless or wilfully blind as to whether they were committing the crime.
In some cases, such as when an accused is found not criminally responsible due to having a mental disorder at the time of the crime, the mens rea will not be proven and the accused will be found not guilty of the crime on this basis.
- Minimum Sentence
For certain crimes, there is a minimum sentence an offender must be sentenced to. The judge does not have the discretion to order a lower sentence. Sometimes the defence lawyer will make an argument that the minimum sentence is unfair, and it can get struck down, but that only happens if the minimum sentence violates the offender’s Charter rights.
A mistrial is a trial that ends before the judge or jury makes its final decision because there has been some fundamental problem with how the trial was run or because the jury cannot make a unanimous decision on whether the accused is guilty or not guilty.
- Mitigating Circumstances
Mitigating circumstances are aspects of a crime that make it reasonable to give the offender a lesser sentence. They may include things like the offender being young or a first-time offender. Aggravating circumstances are the opposite of mitigating circumstances, as they may lead to a higher sentence.
A motion is a request made by one party that the court makes a specific decision or order on an issue related to your lawsuit. Motions are made before the final decision of the case is completed. Examples of motions include requests for extensions of time to file documents, a request of default judgment, or a temporary order for one party to pay the other child support.
If you are the person making the motion, you are called the moving party; the other party is called the responding party. If you submit a notice of motion, you will have to go to court and explain to the court why you should receive the order you are asking for. The court will then decide if they will grant the order or not.
- No Contact
No contact is a condition where the accused or the offender is not allowed to contact a certain person, usually a victim or witness. This condition can include absolutely no contact or limited contact. For example, the condition may allow an accused to contact a witness about their children if that witness is his ex-partner and they share custody of their children.
- No-Evidence Motion
- Non-Custodial Sentence
- Not Criminally Responsible
When an accused is found not criminally responsible for a crime due to a mental disorder, it means that they had a mental condition serious enough that they could not have known what they were doing was wrong, or they could not have controlled their actions when they committed the offence.
In these rare cases, the accused will be clinically assessed, and the judge will examine that information to determine if the accused was not criminally responsible due to mental disorder. If the accused is found to be not criminally responsible, the accused will then go to a provincial or territorial review board that will order an absolute discharge, a conditional discharge, or a custody order. If the accused receives a custody order, they will be treated for their mental illness in a psychiatric hospital until they are safe enough to return to the community.
- Not Guilty
If the accused is found not guilty, this means that Crown counsel did not meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offence. If an accused is found not guilty, they will not receive a sentence and will be free to return to the community.
If a witness does not swear to tell the truth based on their religious beliefs, they must instead affirm to tell the truth.
When someone raises an objection in court, it means that they are opposed to something the other party is doing. See Objections to Evidence for more information about how to make an objection and what you can object to.
An objection may generally be raised in two situations. First, when one party believes that the other party has asked a witness an improper question. Second, when one party believes that the other party is presenting evidence to the court that they should not be allowed to present. After a party raises an objection, they will have to explain to the judge why they are objecting. The other party may also explain to the judge why they think their question or evidence should be allowed. If the judge agrees with the objection, the other party’s question or evidence will not be allowed. However, the judge may disagree with the objection, in which case the other party’s question or evidence would be allowed.
An omission is something that someone does not do. In some cases, an omission can be a crime.
- Opening Statement
Statements made at the beginning of a trial by both the Crown and the accused (or defence counsel). Opening statements are used to give the judge or jury an overview of the case, including the facts that each side is going to prove and the evidence they will present.
- Opinion Evidence
When witnesses testify, their evidence is supposed to be about the facts of the case. When witnesses start to talk about their own opinions, it is considered opinion evidence, which is generally not admissible.
Example: A witness testifies “I definitely think X is guilty and should go to prison.” This is inadmissible opinion evidence.
This does not mean that a witness is never allowed to include an opinion in their testimony. People regularly express opinions without even noticing them. Witnesses are allowed to talk about their “lay opinions.” Lay opinion generally means an opinion that an ordinary person would naturally incorporate into their story.
Example: It would likely be acceptable for a witness to say, “Brian was slurring his words, stumbling a lot, and drinking from a large bottle of vodka. He seemed drunk."
While the witness does not know for a fact that Brian was intoxicated, the opinion that the witness reached that Brian seemed drunk is acceptable evidence as these are the kinds of judgments people regularly reach in their day-to-day lives. A reasonable person observing Brian would likely come to the same conclusion based on his behaviour.
- Oral Evidence
Evidence that is given by a witness to the court orally, instead of through a written statement, is viva voce or oral evidence. If a witness is giving evidence through oral testimony, it is usually done through direct examination and cross-examination, a process where the witness will answer questions in court.
Usually, a person giving viva voce evidence must physically be present in court. However, a witness may ask permission to give their evidence by live video if they have a good reason for why they are unable to make it to court (for example, if they are out of the country).
An order is a decision made by a court that requires someone to do something or refrain from doing something. When a court gives an order, the person bound by the order must do or refrain from doing what is in the order, or potentially face legal consequences.
After an offender has served their sentence, they are released back into the community. This is called being on parole. The offender has to follow certain rules, called conditions, while they are on parole.
- Parole Board of Canada
The Parole Board of Canada is a federal independent administrative tribunal that makes decisions about whether an offender should be conditionally released from a correctional centre (i.e. released on parole). It also makes other decisions such as record suspensions and clemency recommendations.
- Peace Bond
A peace bond is a court order under the Criminal Code made by a judge requiring a person to keep the peace. These orders are intended to protect a person by placing certain conditions on another person that are detailed in the peace bond. If the terms of the peace bond are breached, there are criminal penalties. For more information, see Peace Bonds and Protection Orders for Victims of TFGBV.
- Peace Officer
A peace officer is anyone who has law enforcement powers. It includes people like police officers and some members of Correctional Services Canada.
- Plea / Plead
A plea is a statement the accused makes to the court when they are asked if they are guilty or not guilty of the offence, they are charged with committing. This happens before a trial. If the accused pleads guilty, then they will be sentenced. If they plead not guilty, there will be a trial where a judge or jury will determine if they are guilty or not.
- Police Custody
When the police are holding the accused, the accused is in police custody.
- Police Statement
- Pre-Sentence Report
- Pre-Trial Appearance
A pre-trial appearance is a court appearance before the start of a trial where the accused asks for an adjournment to find a lawyer or learn more about the charges they are accused of, makes a formal request for the information, pleads guilty or not guilty, or tells the Crown they are ready to start the trial.
- Pre-Trial Custody
- Preliminary Hearing / Inquiry
In some criminal cases involving serious offences, there will be a preliminary hearing where Crown counsel will present witnesses to testify about what they know about the crime. The accused or defence counsel will have a chance to cross-examine those witnesses. The judge will then decide if there is enough evidence to proceed to a trial. If there is, the case will go to trial; if not, the offender will be released, and the case will be dismissed.
Privilege is a right that attaches to certain types of relationships that allows communications arising from those relationships to be protected from disclosure at trial. If someone claims that a piece of information is privileged, they are saying that they have a right not to tell the court about that information. Privilege only applies to communications (i.e., conversations, emails, and letters), and does not apply to facts.
Example: Imagine a situation where you cannot remember whether you ran a red light on Friday night. Your lawyer then tells you that they found surveillance footage showing that you did run a red light. This conversation with your lawyer is a communication. However, from this conversation you now know that you ran a red light. It is a fact that you ran a red light. Depending on other factors, your communications (i.e., the conversation) with your lawyer could potentially be privileged. Let us assume for the example that the conversation is privileged. This means that you have a right to keep the conversation a secret. If you are asked in court to repeat what your lawyer said to you, you do not have to repeat the conversation for the court. However, if somebody asks you in court whether you ran a red light on Friday night, you would have to answer truthfully and say yes. You do not have a right to stay silent when someone asks you to tell them about a fact that you have knowledge of. Your conversation with your lawyer is privileged, but the fact that you ran a red light is not privileged.
There are many rules that dictate when a communication is considered privileged. Privilege only attaches to certain types of relationships – you cannot claim a communication is privileged just because you expected it would remain private. For more information about privilege, see Submitting Evidence in Court.
Probation is a part of the convicted offender’s sentence that they serve in the community. The court will add specific conditions in a court order, such as requiring the offender not to drink alcohol or not to be in contact with the victim, that the offender must follow while on probation. In some cases, the court will only order a person to be on probation as their whole sentence. In other cases, they will order the offender to spend time in a correctional facility and then serve probation after they are released from custody.
While on probation, the offender will have to report to a probation officer who will ensure the offender follows the rules of their probation.
- Probation Officer
A probation officer is a person the offender reports to while on probation. A probation officer will do things like check up on the offender, see how well the offender has responded to programs, assess their risk of re-offending, create a case management plan, provide information to the victim, and provide sentencing options to the courts, among other things.
A proceeding can refer to either:
1. The entire court process, or
2. A specific process that is within a larger court process.
- Promise to Appear
A promise to appear is a document that the accused signs when they are released from police custody before their trial. By signing the document, they are promising to come to court at a specific date and time.
- Prosecution / To Prosecute
The prosecutor is the lawyer, also known as the Crown counsel, who represents society in court.
- Protection Order
- Provincial Correctional Centre
A provincial correctional centre is what is known as a jail. If an offender has been sentenced to a custodial sentence that is less than two years, they will serve it in a provincial correctional center.
Provincial correctional centres also hold offenders who are waiting to be moved to a federal corrections centre, accused people who are waiting for their trial, and people who have been detained for immigration purposes.
- Publication Ban
A publication ban is a court order that says that information that could identify the victim or a witness cannot be published or broadcast. This often happens in cases involving sexual offences. The victim or witness will be identified only by their initials or will otherwise be anonymized in the court documents, and it is illegal for people to publish their name regarding the case.
A re-examination is an opportunity for the side who asked the witness to testify to ask them questions again after they have been cross-examined (i.e., questioned by the other party). Sometimes the cross-examination of a witness may result in issues or inconsistencies with their story. The purpose of re-examination is to give the side who called the witness for direct examination a chance to clear up those issues.
A recognizance is a promise made to the court. The person making the promise promises to do something or follow some condition, such as paying a debt or keeping the peace.
- Record Suspension
- Regina / Rex
To rehabilitate someone is to improve their behaviour after they committed a crime. The purpose of rehabilitating someone is to ensure that they are going to return to the community as a law-abiding person. Rehabilitation is one of the key purposes of sentencing.
- Release date
- Release on Appearance Notice
A release on appearance notice is when the police release an accused after arrest with notice that they have to appear in court at a later date.
- Release Order
For the purpose of this toolkit, remedies include possible avenues of legal recourse for victims of TFGBV.
- Repeat Offenders
- Restorative Justice
- Reverse Onus
A reverse onus is a special rule in some sections of the Criminal Code where the burden of proof shifts from Crown counsel to the accused to prove or disprove something. Normally, Crown counsel bears the onus, or burden of proof, to prove each issue beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Rules of Court
Rules of court are guidelines on the procedures that a court, as well as the parties involved, must follow when dealing with legal matters. Each court has its own rules of court that must be followed.
- Self-Represented / Self-Represented Litigant
- Sentence / Sentencing
A sentence is a court order a judge makes when an offender has been convicted of committing a crime. A sentence may include time in custody, a probation order, or other relevant orders. Judges must follow the rules of sentencing and make a fair sentence with good reasons. The principles a judge must follow are found in Part XXIII of the Criminal Code. See also: absolute discharge, community sentence, concurrent sentence, conditional discharge, conditional sentence order, consecutive sentence, custodial sentence, indefinite or indeterminate sentence, life sentence, maximum sentence, minimum sentence, non-custodial sentence, suspended sentence, and work release.
- Sentencing Circles
Sentencing circles are a form of sentencing where many people involved in or impacted by the crime, such as the offender, the victim, their families, and members of the community, get together to try to find a way to address the harms caused by the crime. Sentencing circles are sometimes used in sentencing Indigenous people who have been convicted of a crime and may be used within the formal criminal justice system to make a recommendation to a judge about a proper sentence.
- Sentencing Hearing
A sentencing hearing is a court proceeding where Crown counsel and the offender or defence counsel make submissions to the judge about what type of sentence an offender should get. The judge reviews these submissions and then sentences the offender and makes a court order that describes the sentence.
- Sentencing Position
- Show Cause Hearing
A show cause hearing occurs when a person has been accused of a crime but has not gone to trial yet. A judge may release an accused on bail at this hearing. What this means is that the accused person does not have to stay in the correctional centre while they wait for their trial but can live in the community under certain conditions. A show cause hearing is also called judicial interim release or bail hearing.
- Similar Fact Evidence
Similar fact evidence is evidence that someone has previously engaged in behaviour that is very similar to the issue that is being tried. It is an exception to the general rule that character evidence is inadmissible.
Example: If the case involves the theft of flowerpots from peoples’ front porches, evidence that the defendant has previously stolen flower pots off of front porches would be admissible, as it is highly informative evidence.
- Standard of Proof
Standard of proof is the degree of proof required in a certain case. For criminal trials, the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” For civil law cases, the standard is often on a “balance of probabilities.”
- Statutory Release
A statutory release is when an offender is released into the community after serving two-thirds of their federal sentence. They have to follow certain rules, called conditions, while out on statutory release.
- Stay of Proceedings
A stay of proceedings means that Crown counsel has dropped the charges against the accused. This ends the prosecution. The Crown counsel might start the prosecution again within a certain period (one year for serious offences and six months for less serious charges). Once those timelines have run out, the prosecution cannot be restarted.
- Style of Proceeding / Style of Cause
The “style of cause” is the information at the top of every court document identifying the legal proceeding that the document relates to. In criminal cases, the style of cause will generally read “R v [Accused’s last name],” with “R” standing for Regina or Rex, along with some identifying information about what court the documents were filed in, the case registry number, and relevant dates. All the court documents of a lawsuit will have the same style of cause/proceeding.
Submissions are the documents that Crown counsel and the accused or their defence counsel submit to the court to explain why they think their side of the case is correct. It contains their legal argument with relevant evidence attached.
- Submit / File
Giving the court your documents to keep on file. Documents can be filed in person at the courthouse of your choice, or you can file your documents online through e-filing.
A subpoena is a document that tells someone they must attend court and act as a witness. If you receive a subpoena, you must go to court at the date and time set out in the subpoena. If you do not show up to court, there may be legal consequences such as a warrant for your arrest. Crown counsel or the accused or defence counsel will subpoena witnesses in a criminal case.
- Summary Offence
Less serious crimes are known as “summary offences” and follow a summary conviction process that is simpler, resulting in a less serious sentence for the accused if they are convicted. The maximum penalty for this type of offence is usually six months in jail or a $5,000 fine.
The Criminal Code defines which offences are summary and which are indictable (i.e., more serious). Sometimes Crown counsel has a choice in charging the crime as a summary or indictable offence; these are called dual procedure or hybrid offences.
- Suspended Sentence
A suspended sentence involves a judge ordering an offender released on probation for a certain period. As long as the offender follows certain conditions, the judge will put off sentencing them. However, if they breach the conditions, then the judge can impose a sentence.
- Swear an Oath / Sworn in
When a witness is sworn in or swears an oath in court, they are promising to tell the truth. They are swearing on their religious beliefs. If they do not have religious beliefs, they may choose to affirm to tell the truth instead.
A witness is testifying (or “giving testimony”) when they are orally providing the court with information about the case after they have promised to tell the truth by affirmation or an oath. Witnesses will give their testimony through direct examination, cross-examination, and (sometimes) re-examination.
See oral evidence.
- Time Served
Sometimes a sentence will be for “time served.” What this means is that the amount of time the accused spent in custody before being convicted counts as their sentence. This means the offender will be released after the trial.
The judge will discuss the totality of the sentence and whether it is fair. Sometimes when someone has been convicted of many crimes at one trial, the sentences for all of those crimes add up to an unfairly long sentence. The judge will look at the totality of the sentence and if it is unfair, they will reduce it.
All proceedings are transcribed by a court clerk in text or audio format. What is said during the proceedings and entered into the record is recorded. They are not generally publicly available, so if you want a copy of a court transcript you will need to make a request to the court. There are some restrictions on which transcripts can be released and it can be expensive to order them.
A trial is the hearing of a case before a judge or jury in court. The Crown counsel and the accused or defence counsel will have an opportunity to present evidence and make submissions. At the end of the trial, the judge or jury will determine if the accused is guilty or not guilty of the crime(s) they are charged with.
An undertaking is a formal promise to do something.
- Unrepresented Litigant
An accused person at a criminal trial may be “self-represented,” meaning they do not have a lawyer making arguments for them. The term “self-represented” suggests that there is a choice to be self-represented. However, self-represented accused may not feel as though they have a choice and must represent themselves, therefore the term “unrepresented” may be more appropriate.
If you are a self-represented accused person, it is recommended you review the Canadian Judicial Council’s Criminal Law Handbook, as well as the documents in this Toolkit and the Preserving Digital Evidence Toolkit.
- Victim Bill of Rights
- Victim Impact Statement
A victim impact statement is a statement written by the victim about how the crime committed by the offender impacted their life. They might describe being physically or psychologically harmed. A judge and parole board must consider any victim impact statements when sentencing an offender or deciding whether they will be released on parole. Information about preparing a victim impact statement is available here.
- Victim Services
Victim services are services that are provided by the police or community organizations that can help victims understand the criminal court system and what rights victims have in these proceedings. See: Legal and Victim Services Supports and Resources.
- Viva Voce Evidence
See oral evidence.
After all of the evidence from both Crown counsel and the accused or defence counsel has been admitted, the judge or jury will determine how much weight to give each piece of evidence by considering the reliability and trustworthiness of the evidence. Evidence that is given more weight will have a greater impact on the outcome of the trial. Evidence that is given little to no weight will not affect the outcome very much.
Witnesses will give evidence to the court either through oral testimony or, occasionally in criminal matters, an affidavit. If a witness is giving evidence through oral testimony, it will usually be done through direct examination and cross-examination, a process where the witness will answer questions in court.
During a trial, there are rules that dictate what a witness is allowed to say. Generally, witnesses are only allowed to tell the court things that they have first-hand knowledge of and cannot talk about their opinions. However, there are many exceptions. See opinion evidence and expert witness.
- Witness Notifier
Witnesses to a criminal case may receive a phone call or subpoena telling them to come to court to testify by the witness notifier. The witness will then need to contact the witness notifier to say they will attend court. This information will be listed on the subpoena or should be provided by the Crown counsel or defence counsel who contact the witness.
- Work Release
- Youth Court
Youth Court is where youth offenders go to court.
- Youth Offender
A youth offender is someone between the ages of 12 and 17. If they are charged with a crime, they will be dealt with in Youth Court rather than the regular court. The Youth Criminal Justice Act sets out the rules for how to treat these offenders.
- Youth Records
Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) is part of a continuum of violence that can be both online and in-person. If you or someone you know is experiencing TFGBV, you are not alone. You can use sheltersafe.ca to find a shelter/transition house near you or call/text the Kids Help Phone to discuss options and create a safety plan. You don’t need to stay in a shelter to access free, confidential services and support.
We gratefully acknowledge Moira Aikenhead for providing expertise to update this toolkit and Suzie Dunn, PhD Candidate at the University of Ottawa for the creation of an earlier version of this information sheet.
Adapted with permission from BCSTH’s Technology Safety project, based on their resource Definitions of Legal Terms for British Columbia.