Criminal courts are complex administrative organizations that oversee the process of prosecuting criminal offences and ensuring that trials are conducted in accordance with the principals of fairness.
The Criminal Court Structure
The provincial court system consists of the provincial courts and the superior courts of the province. The Provincial Court is at the bottom of the hierarchy of Canadian courts. Provincial Court judges in the criminal division have the jurisdiction to hear summary conviction offences, such as public nudity, which are relatively minor crimes. They also hear indictable offences, which carry heavier penalties as well as violations of provincial statutes or municipal bylaws. In addition, the Provincial Court, Criminal Division, conducts all preliminary hearings to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to put the accused on trial by a higher court. An appeal from the Provincial Court is heard by the Superior Court of the province, which is the highest level of the provincial court system. This court conducts trials for serious crimes such as murder.
The federal court system consists of the Federal Court of Canada, which has a trial division and an appeal division, and the Supreme Court of Canada-the countrys highest court of appeal. The Supreme Court grants leave, or permission to appeal only for matters of national significance or when decisions conflict in the provincial appeals court. Other specialized courts include the Tax Court of Canada, the Court Martial Appeal Court, and the Nisgaa Court in British Columbia.
Canadas criminal justice system has two fundamental principles: an accused person is innocent until proven guilty, and guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge makes decisions on the admissibility of evidence, controls the events in the courtroom, and interprets the law pertaining to the case. The judge instructs the jury on points of law and sentences the convicted person. In a non-jury trial, the judge decides on the guilt or innocence of the accused and passes sentence.
The person charged with a crime is called the accused (or defendant) and the defence counsel is the lawyer who represents the defendants interests. If the accused pleads not guilty, the defence counsel will try to show that there exists a reasonable doubt of the defendants guilt. If the accused pleads guilty or is found guilty after trial, the defence counsel will recommend an appropriate sentence to the judge.
The Crown attorney (or prosecutor) is the lawyer presenting the governments interests in investigating and punishing criminal offences. The prosecutor prepares the case by researching the law, assembling evidence for trial, such as fingerprints or articles of clothing, reviewing the exhibits, and taking statements from the arresting officer and other witnesses. Evidence is information that tends to prove or disprove the elements of the case. Other court personnel are the court clerk who keeps a record of the trial exhibits, administers oaths, and announces the beginning or end of the court session, the court reporter who records everything said during the trial to produce a transcript, the court security officer, the sheriff who is responsible for jury management, and the bailiff who assists the sheriff.
Witnesses give evidence, under oath, concerning their knowledge of the circumstances surrounding a crime. Witnesses may be issued a court order called a subpoena, which compels them to appear in court. Witnesses who give false statements, that is commit perjury, can receive a sentence of up to 14 years.
The Role of the Jury
For a criminal trial, a jury is a group of 12 people who listen to the trial, examine the evidence, and follow the judges instructions about the law. Usually, to be eligible for jury duty, an individual must a Canadian citizen 18 years of age or older and a resident of the province for at least a year. The Crown and the defence attorneys select jurors from a jury panel of potential jurors. The members of the jury take the jurors oath, choose a foreperson from among themselves and then the trial begins. At the end of the trial, jurors withdraw to the jury room to deliberate in secret, consider all the evidence, and decide together whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. Their verdict must be unanimous otherwise it is referred to as a hung jury and a new jury is selected and the case is tried again.
The Criminal Trial Process
The burden of proof to prove the guilt of the accused rests with the Crown. The trial begins with the Crowns opening statement, which identifies the offence committed, summarizes the evidence against the accused, and outlines how the Crown will present its case. Most of the evidence in a criminal trial is presented through witnesses. The Crown conducts a direct examination during which a witness tells what he or she observed about the crime. The defence counsel can then conduct a cross-examination to test the accuracy of the witnesss testimony.
After the Crowns witnesses have been called, the defence may bring a motion for dismissal if the defence believes that the Crown has failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge may then withdraw the case from the jury and enter a directed verdict of not guilty. If the judge does not dismiss the trial, the defence goes on to summarize its case in an opening statement and call witnesses to refute the Crowns case. Defence witnesses are then cross-examined by the Crown.
During the trial, either the Crown or the defence may object to questions addressed to the witnesses by the other party. Objections are usually based on leading questions that suggest a particular answer to the witness, questions that require hearsay evidence - comments that the witness heard from a third party, questions asking the opinion of the witness, or immaterial or irrelevant questions. All evidence presented at the trial must be material or relevant to the case. Direct evidence is the testimony, such as an eyewitness account, given by a witness. If there is no one to provide eyewitness testimony, the offence may be proven by circumstantial evidence. Character evidence establishes the likelihood that the defendant is the type of person who either would or would not commit a certain offence. Evidence from electric surveillance such wiretapping or bugging may be introduced.
After all the testimony has been given, each counsel presents a summary of the case in the form of closing arguments. Then the judge gives a charge to the jury-an explanation of the law and instructions on how the law applies to the case. Once the verdict has been reached, it is read in open court. Either the Crown or the defence can appeal the sentence given a defendant who is found guilty.