When a person is charged, they are either released from the scene, at the police station, or on bail (or detained and denied bail in some more serious instances). No matter what category you fall under, if you are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system the first appearance in court can be a mystery to most.
Your first appearance in criminal court is not your trial date.
the first thing that a person needs to understand is that the first appearance after arrest (unless you are held for a bail hearing) is that the court is administrative in nature. Notwithstanding the administrative nature of the first appearance, it is still critically important you attend, as you are required by law to do. Here is what to expect once you arrive for your first date:
Your attendance is required by law. Failure to attend may result in a warrant for your arrest. If you cannot, or do not wish to attend, arrangements can be made in advance through a licensed lawyer.
Take half the day off work, and be prepared to call in and ask for the whole day. Depending on the jurisdiction, you may be in Court for a few minutes or the entire day regardless of the seriousness of your offence.
You must arrive on time despite the delays that the day may have in store for you. It is wise to be there 15 minutes early. If you are meeting a lawyer, it is prudent to be there before Court opens as they cannot call your name inside the room once the proceedings have started. It is also wise to have the lawyer’s cell phone if you intend to meet up with your counsel on the first date.
Can someone appear on your behalf?
Agents (such as family members, friends, law students, and even paralegals) do not necessarily have the ability in law to appear on your behalf depending on the nature of the charges. Exceptions can be made in some instances but these exceptions should only by attempted with specific and professional legal advice from a lawyer. Lawyers may appear on your behalf for all criminal charges with the use of a “designation of counsel” form but this must be arranged in advance through your lawyer.
Some other things to know on the first day of criminal court:
- The Court will have a daily “docket” that will list all the people required to attend that day and the nature of their charges.
- The Court will call the docket in the order the Court and Crown Attorney chooses. Generally speaking, lawyer’s matters will be called first. From there, the list may be called in any way the Court or Crown deems appropriate.
- If you are unrepresented, duty counsel is present to assist you and address the Court on your behalf.
- On your first appearance (after your bail hearing, or after released by the police), you are asking the Crown Attorney if “disclosure” is ready. Disclosure is a collection of material that the Crown intends to rely on to prosecute the charges. It may include police notes, statements, video, audio, or other evidence that is applicable to the case. Whether you have a lawyer or not, it is very difficult to make any further progress in your case without disclosure.
- Whether you are provided with disclosure or not, your case will then be adjourned for several weeks for the purpose of either reviewing your disclosure with a lawyer, or for the Crown to have disclosure ready on the next appearance. It is highly unusual that any trial date would be scheduled on the first appearance as such a step requires a meeting with the Crown Attorney to estimate trial time, witnesses, etc.
- Once your case is adjourned, it is wise to take your disclosure to a lawyer if you do not have one already. It is best to speak to a lawyer who is familiar and experienced in criminal law. Many lawyers, including myself, will not charge you for the initial consultation.
- If you do not have disclosure, your next appearance is for that reason. You are perfectly entitled to say to the Court or Crown, if pressed on the issue of retaining counsel, that you cannot make an informed decision for retaining counsel until you have disclosure (as you and the lawyer need to understand the case against you).
- After court is finished, be sure to remember the next date for Court. Write it down, program it in your phone, in your calendars, and anything else you can think of to remind yourself. Not attending for Court is a criminal offence in itself and may result in spending time in custody.
I hope you have found this article helpful and are feeling less anxious about your first appearance in Ontario’s Courts. However, none of these tips can properly substitute for specific legal advice through a criminal defence lawyer. If you wish to discuss any of these issues with me, or seek clarification, do not hestiate to call me at 416.220.0413 or through my website listed above.