The first appearance is not your trial date.
In Ontario, when someone is charged with a criminal offence, they will have a “first appearance” court date in the Ontario Court of Justice. However, this is not typically the trial date.
At this court appearance, which is usually conducted via Zoom, the accused or their lawyer, as well as the Crown prosecutor, will update the court on the status of the case and schedule a future date for another check-in.
This administrative appearance is usually one of many matters being addressed in court that day. Before this appearance, the accused may have been released by police with or without conditions or they may have had a bail hearing and been released by the court or held in custody.
Shortly before or after the first appearance, there are two important things that usually happen:
First, the Crown is required to give the accused person “disclosure”. This means they must provide the evidence they plan to use to prosecute the case in advance of the trial date. Having this information helps the accused and their lawyer understand the case against them and make informed decisions about how to proceed.
Second, the Crown may give the accused person a “screening form”. This form explains how the Crown plans to deal with the case, including whether they intend to proceed by indictment or summary conviction, and what type of sentence they would seek if the accused person were to plead guilty.
It’s normal not to receive either of these materials before the first appearance in court.
While prosecutors strive to provide disclosure in complete form, it is common it comes through instalments to fulfill their ongoing obligation to keep the accused informed of the evidence against them.
Speak to a lawyer before doing anything.
While it is possible for someone to plead guilty to criminal charges on their first appearance in court, it is not common and not recommended.
It’s important to have a lawyer who can review the evidence against you, discuss your options, and negotiate with the prosecutor to get the best possible outcome.
It’s also worth noting that in Ontario, you’re not expected to enter a plea of “not guilty” on your first appearance. It’s easy to change your plea from “not guilty” to “guilty,” but it’s difficult to change your plea from “guilty” to “not guilty.” So, it’s important to make a well-informed decision with the guidance of a lawyer.
Retaining counsel for the first appearance in Court.
Although having legal counsel retained on the first appearance is not necessary, it is strongly encouraged. The sooner an individual retains counsel to assist them, the easier and less overwhelming the entire process becomes.
Whether counsel is retained or not, in nearly all instances at the first appearance, the criminal matter is adjourned for several weeks to allow the accused person to take the following actions:
- Review the evidence (“disclosure”) that the Crown has or obtain it if not provided yet
- Hire a lawyer for legal advice if they have not already done so
- Apply for Legal Aid if they need financial assistance for legal representation
- Allow their lawyer to discuss the case with the Crown for the purpose of resolving the matter or planning for trial
- Other necessary actions related to the case.