Canadian Criminal Justice System
How does the Canadian Criminal Justice System Work?
The Canadian criminal justice system is based on the old English common law tradition. If you are new to Canada, depending on where in the world you have come from, you may find that certain aspects of Canadian criminal justice system are different from your home country.
One of the most important tenets of the Canadian criminal justice system is that an individual charged with a criminal offence is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a Court of law.
If the police have sufficient grounds to lay a criminal charge, the accused person will be arrested and brought before the Court to answer to the charge. Every accused person has a right to a reasonable bail. In some cases the accused will be released from the station on a promise to appear. In other cases, the accused may be held for a bail hearing (please refer to the pages about bail to learn more).
If the matter reaches the trial stage, the Crown Attorney prosecuting the case has the onus of proving the charges against the accused beyond reasonable doubt. The Crown Attorney prosecutes the accused person by calling evidence (i.e. questioning witnesses and introducing documents where applicable). The counsel for the accused person then has a right to cross-examine the witnesses called by the Crown.
After the prosecutor has called all of the Crown’s witnesses, the accused person has an opportunity to call evidence in his or her own defence. It is important to note that because of the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof rests with the Crown. Therefore, the accused person is under no obligation to call any evidence. There are, of course, cases where the strength of the Crown’s case, the nature of the allegations, and the evidence presented by the Crown, would make it strategically necessary for the defence to call some evidence to raise reasonable doubt.
If the presiding Judge finds that the Crown did not discharge its burden of proof, i.e. did not prove the accused’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt, the accused person will be acquitted and found not guilty of the criminal charge.
If, however, the presiding Judge finds that the Crown proved that the accused person is guilty of the charge beyond reasonable doubt, the Judge will find the accused person guilty and will then proceed to the sentencing stage.
This model of the criminal justice system, where the presiding Judge is essentially acting as an independent arbiter who adjudicates between the two opposing sides, is known as an adversarial system. The role of the trial Judge is to hear all of the evidence introduced by the parties and to ultimately decide whether the Crown has proven its case beyond reasonable doubt.
In serious cases the accused person may be tried by judge and jury. In those cases, the Judge will instruct the jury on the applicable elements of law and the jury will then have to make their unanimous decision on whether the Crown has proven that the accused person is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
For more information about the Canadian criminal justice system, please visit the website of the Ministry of the Attorney General at
Barrister & Solicitor
120 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 500