Pleading not guilty in an Ontario criminal Court

“When you hear, “My client pleads ‘not guilty’, Your Honour!” in TV dramas and blockbuster movies, you might think it’s a regular occurrence in courtrooms. However, that’s Hollywood, not the reality of Ontario’s criminal justice system.

In Ontario, when a person is arrested and charged, they’re not immediately asked to enter a plea. Instead, they’re either released at the scene, from the police station, or, in serious cases, brought before a Justice of the Peace for a bail hearing. For certain offences like homicide and terrorism, the accused stays in custody pending a successful application for bail. Through all this, there’s no opportunity yet to plead guilty or not guilty.

The actual plea, be it guilty or not guilty, is entered much later in the judicial process, either at a trial or on a predetermined “guilty plea” date. In fact, “not guilty” pleas are reserved exclusively for the trial.”

When is the earliest opportunity to plead not guilty?

Many potential clients approach us, as lawyers, wanting to know when they can assert their innocence before a judge. While their urgency is understandable, the intricacies of litigation and investigation mean instant pleas are not feasible.

Just as courts require a thorough examination of the evidence before finding anyone guilty, they also don’t hastily accept claims of innocence. Being presumed innocent is different from being declared not guilty, and reaching that determination requires due process.

The Criminal Code of Canada provides clarity:

606(1.1) A court may accept a plea of guilty only if:

a) the plea is voluntary
b) the accused understands: i) the plea admits the offence’s essential elements, ii) the plea’s implications, and iii) that any agreement between the accused and the prosecutor isn’t binding on the court.

In real terms, this means an individual typically enters a plea: a) before the trial judge on trial day, or b) before a judge satisfied, after a 606 inquiry, that the person wishes to plea.

If no plea is made, the judge enters a “not guilty” plea as per s. 606(2).

It’s worth noting that lawyers sometimes announce an intent to plead “not guilty” to the media, especially after high-profile arrests. Such declarations, while potentially beneficial for public perception, have no legal value. Their primary purpose is to manage reputational impact before trial proceedings. A lawyer’s announcement doesn’t legally bind the accused, nor does it influence the court. Similarly, any public statements, whether from a purported victim or an accused, carry no weight in court but they may be used as evidence of admissions or contradictions later on.

The decision to plead “not guilty” or “guilty” is a complicated and important one

Pleas are complicated and serious by their very nature. It’s not uncommon for individuals to misunderstand the legal implications of their actions. Some might think they haven’t committed a crime when, legally, they have. Conversely, one might believe they’ve acted unlawfully when the facts don’t support such a conclusion. Therefore, it’s crucial to seek the best possible legal advice before deciding how to plead.

Before making any plea decisions, consult a lawyer. They can offer insights on the process, critical considerations, and the advantages of having legal representation. Many lawyers provide initial consultations at minimal or no cost, helping you avoid potentially life-altering mistakes.

For discussions on this or other legal matters, contact our firm via email or at (416) 999-8389.