Updated: Aug 24, 2020
We are a group of law students from the University of Windsor, Faculty of Law. Our mission is to promote access to justice and understanding of the law for all individuals. To this end, we write short and sweet legal summaries of cases in criminal law with hopes of making the law more understandable and accessible for everyone.
But let’s face it, the law is complicated. To make it simpler, here is a crash course in criminal legal lingo and the legal system to help make your reading a little more useful.
The Legal Players
The Crown – a lawyer who represents the state (Canada; also called Her Majesty the Queen) – is the prosecutor in criminal cases. The Crown must prove that accused people are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If they cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then the accused person will be deemed legally innocent.
Defence counsel – also known as defence lawyers – are the lawyers who work defending defendants in criminal matters. They provide accused people with legal advice so they can properly assert their rights throughout the case. Everyone in Canada is entitled to consult with a lawyer immediately after being arrested or detained. Defence lawyers play a very important role in the criminal legal system, acting as a major check and balance to the power of the state and defending the rights of defendants.
The Accused (also known as the defendant) is the person “on trial” – the person who the Crown says committed some crime. They are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by the Crown. Accused people may plead guilty and admit to the crime they are being charged with. But they may plead their innocence – not guilty, your Honour! – and force the Crown to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Complainants - are the people who lodge formal complaints, which may later become criminal proceedings. An example of a complainant lodging a complaint is a person calling the police to report that their car was stolen. If a complaint leads to an arrest and/or criminal charge, the person who is charged will become the accused or defendant.
The Legal System and its Stages
The criminal legal system is organized into three levels of court: (1) the trial level, (2) the appeal level, and (3) the Supreme Court of Canada.
Trial and appeal courts are province-specific; if you are charged in Ontario, you go to trial in Ontario, based on the jurisdiction in Ontario you were charged in.
Appeal courts, like trial courts, hear cases on appeal from the judgments made in trial courts within their respective provinces.
The Supreme Court of Canada, however, hears cases from all over Canada and serves as the (supreme) appeal court for all the appellate courts across the country. It is rare for the Supreme Court of Canada to hear cases, and they will only hear cases that investigate new and unique issues, such as something that challenges individual constitutional rights, which concerns everyone in Canada.
The Court Level Stages Explained
Everything starts at the trial court. In Ontario, the trial court has two separate levels. Less serious crimes go to the Ontario Court of Justice, while more serious crimes go to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
After trial court, if either the Crown or defendant are unsatisfied with the outcome of the case for some legal reason, or if they feel the process was unfair or that the law was not properly applied, they may appeal the decision to the appeal court in the province where the trial took place. In Ontario, this is the Court of Appeal for Ontario.
If a trial level decision is appealed, the side who appeals it will be called the Appellant at the appeal level, and the other side will be called the Respondent.
If at the appellate court either the Crown or Defendant or within civil cases, are unsatisfied with the judgement they can create an application for “leave to appeal,” which is “permission” to appeal, to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Supreme Court of Canada
The above is the same for any case heard at the Supreme Court of Canada; if a case makes it to the Supreme Court of Canada, the side that is appealing the provincial appeals court’s decision will be the Appellant and the other side will be the Respondent.
You can bring an application for leave to appeal from a judgement of a court of appeal that either:
1. Allowed an appeal by the Crown or
2. Dismissed your appeal from the judgement at trial
Case Law and Precedents: Why Are They Talking About Another Case in This Case?
In our summaries, you may see names of other cases from the past. This is because, in Canada, the law is applied in principle with Stare Decisis. This is the idea that precedent will rule, or that things will be decided as they have previously been decided (although, this is more challenging and complicated than it sounds).
Laws and law books are long and complicated. But despite their length, it is impossible for the law to cover everything that could possibly happen in every circumstance. Each time a judge or Court decides a case, their decision becomes what is called case law. Case law is the law that is born out of a decision, which lawyers and judges look at in future cases when trying to decide an outcome, in trying to apply the law as it has previously been applied and keep the law stable.