Select Page

Understanding Criminal Law

Criminal law makes some acts illegal, such as murder and robbery. These acts go against our society’s basic values. In Canada, most crimes and their punishments are listed in the Criminal Code. The punishments are called “sentences”.

What Happens if You Commit a Crime?

A person who does something that goes against the Criminal Code can be accused of committing a crime. This person then has to go to court to defend himself or to accept the punishment for his criminal actions.

Often, the victim reports the crime to the police. But it’s not the victim who takes the person to court. Instead, the government brings him to court on behalf of society.

A crime doesn’t always have a known victim. For example, there are often no victims identified in drug-related crimes. These crimes include manufacturing drugs, possessing them and trafficking them.

Proceedings before the Court are public. You can attend at any time, and anyone can be in the room except when there is a closed session.




The clerk

He swears in and notes the statements.


The victim

Person against whom the crime was committed and who becomes the main witness in court.

The witness

A person summoned to court to describe to the judge or jurors what they saw or heard in connection with the crime that was committed. This person testifies to the important facts.


The investigating officer

Police officer in charge of the investigation following the statement made to the police by the victim and/or the witnesses.


The judge

His function is to conduct the hearing. He must apply the law and rule on the innocence or guilt of the accused (if the trial is without jurors).


The jury

In some trials, it is not a judge who decides whether the accused is guilty or not. This task is given to 12 “ordinary” citizens who have been selected from a list of names drawn at random from society. It is therefore these twelve “jurors” who together form the “jury”. If the trial is with jurors, the judge must give them instructions.

Jurors must make a decision based on the law and the evidence given at trial, not their personal opinion. Their decision must be unanimous, that means that all the jurors must agree on weather or not the accused is guilty. When the jury finds the defendant guilty, it is not the jury that determines the sentence. This task falls to the judge.


Criminal and Penal Prosecuting Attorneys

When the police believe that someone has committed a crime, they carry out an investigation. If they have enough evidence against that person, they send the file to a lawyer who works for the department of justice.

This lawyer is called a “criminal and penal prosecuting attorney.” This lawyer used to be called a “Crown prosecutor.” The criminal and penal prosecuting attorney decides whether the person will be charged with a crime. If charges are brought, the person must appear in court.

It is up to the Crown prosecutor to present all the evidence before the judge or the jurors to prove that the crime took place and that nothing else could have happened. He must demonstrate this proof beyond a reasonable doubt.


The defense lawyer

It is the lawyer who represents a person accused of an offence. His role is to ensure that the rights of the accused are protected from the beginning to the end of the proceedings. The accused has the right to see all the evidence against him, including the evidence that will be presented in court as well as the statements of witnesses and victims. During the trial, the role of the defense lawyer is to challenge the evidence presented by the criminal and penal prosecuting attorney or to point out their weaknesses. He tries to demonstrate that his client is not guilty or to obtain the least severe sentence possible. The defence lawyer may therefore cross-examine witnesses to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the judge or jury.


The Accused Is Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Every person accused of a crime has the right to a trial. Also, an accused is “presumed innocent” until found guilty by the court.

This is called “the presumption of innocence.” This presumption of innocence is important because the consequences of being found guilty are very serious.

For example, an accused who is found guilty of a crime might have to pay heavy fines or go to prison. He is considered a criminal and has a criminal record. So, it’s important that the judge is sure that the accused committed the crime before finding him guilty.


Guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

It is up to the criminal and penal prosecuting attorney to prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the judge must be almost 100% sure that the accused is guilty. If the judge has a “reasonable” doubt, the accused must be found “not guilty.”

The accused is allowed to defend himself and try to provide evidence of his innocence. The aim of a defense is to put a reasonable doubt into the judge’s mind.


Differences Between Criminal and Civil Cases

The two main categories of law in Quebec are criminal law and civil law. The two categories are very different but are easy to confuse.

In a criminal case, the government takes the accused to court. The accused presents a defense and the judge (or jury in some cases) decides whether the accused is guilty. The judge then decides on the punishment, that is, the “sentence.”

In a civil case, people or organizations take each other to court if they can’t settle a disagreement on their own. They want a judge to find a solution. For example, a person can sue a neighbour in civil court for damaging his fence with a snow blower.

Sometimes one situation can lead to both a criminal case and a civil case. For example, a person punches a neighbour for damaging his fence and breaks the neighbour’s tooth. The government can take that person to criminal court because punching someone is a crime (“assault”). The injured neighbour can sue the other person in civil court to be paid back for the cost of fixing his tooth.

Sources : The present text is a combination of the following texts taken from the Educaloi website.


Understanding Criminal Law


The Players in a Criminal Court Case
To which the Châteauguay CALACS then added and/or modified