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The judicial process in criminal cases

If you have been charged with a crime, your case will be tried to determine if you are guilty or innocent of the crime. 

Even though you have been charged, you are presumed to be innocent until found guilty.

These are the steps of the judicial process in criminal cases from the police investigation to the end of the trial. The process’s period always depends on the case.

Summary of the judicial process for adults in criminal cases (PDF 443 Kb)

A person can file a complaint with the police against you if he or she believes is a witness to, or the victim of, a crime allegedly committed by you. The police will then decide whether or not to investigate.

The police will investigate, without any complaint filed, if you are caught committing a crime.

The investigation’s period always depends upon the complexity and the situation of the case.

Once the investigation has been completed, the police can arrest you if they have reasonable grounds to believe that you committed a criminal offence. After your arrest, they release you or they keep you detained.

If you are under the age of 18, they can also apply extrajudicial measures against you. These measures are aimed to make sure you answer for your actions apart from the judicial system, for example by volunteering for a community organization.

After your release

If the police decide to release you, they may also: 

  • give you an appearance notice before the judge in court; or
  • have you sign a promise to appear before a judge, and then give you a copy (this promise can include conditions to comply, for example not using drugs or alcohol).

The documents all-state where and when you must attend court before the judge. This part is called appearance.

If the police do not give you any document when you are released, or if you are not arrested, you may receive an appearance notice later, stating where and when you must attend court.

Assessment of the investigation report by the prosecuting attorney

After your arrest, the police officers submit to a criminal and penal prosecutor :

  • a report investigation;
  • the evidence gathered during the investigation;
  • a request to initiate legal proceedings (a prosecution).

The prosecutor assesses these documents. He or she has to decide whether criminal charges are laid against you or not. To do so, the prosecuting attorney bases its decision on the policies of the director of criminal and penal prosecutions (in French only) This hyperlink will open in a new window..

When he or she decides to lay charges against you, the prosecuting attorney takes into account:

  • the evidence available;
  • the opportunity to prosecute in the public interest: the public interest means, for example, to ensure safety of Quebec’s population;
  • the best interests of victims and the Quebec population;
  • witness protection;
  • respect of fundamental rights, such as presumption of innocence.

The prosecutor lay charges only if he or she thinks being able to convince a jury reasonably informed in law of your guilt.

If the prosecutor accuses you, he or she makes an information. This document lists the alleged offences for each count you are alleged to have committed.

It is then submitted to a justice of the peace, who must sign it in order to charge you formally. 

If no charges are laid against you, the prosecutor may apply:

  • a non-judicial measure This hyperlink will open in a new window. to your case, in other words, give you a warning (applying to certain criminal offences only);
  • an alternative measure This hyperlink will open in a new window. (or extrajudicial sanction) if you are over 18 (applicable for certain offences only);
  • an extrajudicial sanction, if you are under the age of 18 (outside the justice system): for example to volunteer for a community organization.

The prosecuting attorney may, if the evidence is insufficient, decide to drop the charges against you or request a further investigation.

The delay between the moment the police refer the file to a prosecutor and the moment the prosecutor decides to lay charges depends on:

  • the evidence the prosecutor has to assess (quantity, type of evidence, complexity levels);
  • further investigation that the prosecutor might request to the police.

First appearance

If the police keep you in detention after your arrest, you will appear before the judge within 24 hours following your arrest or as soon as practicable.

If the police released you after your arrest, you will appear before the judge at the time and place indicated in the document you have received.

The appearance always begins with a reading of the charges laid in the information.

Interim release hearing

If you are held in custody until your first appearance, the judge will hold a hearing to determine if you are to remain custody until your trial or if you may be released. This hearing is called an interim release hearing (or bail hearing).

The judge must hold the hearing not more than 3 days after your first appearance, except if you consent to a longer period. 

If the judge decides you are not released, you remain in custody during the trial.  

During the judicial process, the judge may amend its decision.

Grounds for continued custody 

The judge may remand you in custody because of the following reasons:

  • you may fail to appear before the judge for the next step in the judicial process;
  • custody is necessary in order to maintain public confidence in the judicial system;
  • the safety of the population may be jeopardized if you are not detained.

Regarding the last reason, the judge believes that you can:

  • commit further  offences;
  • destroy the evidence;
  • bother the victim or witnesses.

Conditional release

The judge may order your conditional release. Depending on the offence with which you are charged, the conditions may involve:

  • remaining at a fixed address;
  • not contacting the victim;
  • not consuming or possessing alcohol or drugs;
  • not possessing a weapon;
  • maintaining good conduct and not disturbing the peace;
  • attending court when required.

You must comply with the conditions until the end of your trial. Breaching the conditions constitutes a new offence and you may be returned to custody, or new charges being laid.

You may also be required to post bail. It could be an agreement with you or financial conditions. 

Financial conditions (Bail)

The judge may require you to post bail to guarantee that you will comply with the conditions of your release and attend court when required.

Depending on what the judge orders, you will be required to:

  • deposit the amount of the bail at the court office;
  • promise to pay the amount. 

The promise to pay may be made by another person, who becomes your "surety". This may be a family member or friend. This is called a ‘’bail’’.

If you fail to respect your bail conditions, the amount is confiscated. Otherwise it will be returned to the person who paid it once the judicial process is over, regardless of whether you are found guilty or acquitted.

Before the trial, the prosecuting attorney must disclose all the relevant evidence held against you. This is called the disclosure of the evidence. This means that you will receive a copy of the following elements from the police investigation:

  • witness statements;
  • police reports;
  • photos;
  • video or audio recordings, etc.

The prosecuting attorney must also disclose all the other evidence gathered that will not be used at trial, regardless of whether it tends to show your guilt or your innocence.

In general, the evidence is disclosed at your first appearance, but it may be disclosed before or after you appear.

Based on the disclosure of evidence, you can:

  • plead guilty and receive your sentence immediately;
  • plead not guilty : the judge will set a date for a trial or a next hearing before a judge;
  • request to postpone your guilty plea or not-guilty plea at a future date.

For serious offences, you have to choose a trial:

  • before a judge only;
  • before a judge and a jury.

Once you have assessed the evidence against you, you may choose to negotiate a settlement, by meeting privately with the prosecuting attorney accompanied by your lawyer, if you have chosen to be represented.

The settlement must then be approved by a judge.

If you are charged with a serious crime such as murder, a preliminary inquiry will be held before your trial if requested by you or by your lawyer. This inquiry is made to establish if the evidence is sufficient to go to trial.

After the preliminary inquiry, the judge determines if you will stand trial for each charge against you. Some charges may be dropped, and others may be added based on the results of the preliminary inquiry.

A criminal trial occurs when you pleaded not guilty to charges laid against you.

In criminal law, trials are held before the public, with some exceptions.

Two parties are involved in a trial:

  • the prosecuting, represented by the criminal and penal prosecutor, on behalf of the State;
  • the defence, your lawyer, or you if you are representing yourself.

The trial is a hearing for which the prosecutor has to convince the judge beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty.

The prosecuting attorney will attempt to show that you committed the offence charged, for example by: 

  • calling witnesses, including the victim if necessary, and expert witnesses;
  • presenting physical and documentary evidence.

You are not required to give evidence, testify, or present witnesses. However, you can do so to raise a reasonable doubt about your guilt.

If you decide to testify, the prosecuting attorney will be able to cross-examine you. Both the prosecuting attorney and your defence lawyer can cross-examine the witnesses presented by the other party.

Once the evidence has been presented, your lawyer and the prosecuting attorney make their closing submissions. This stage in the trial gives them an opportunity to: 

  • highlight the key points in the case;
  • present their arguments, based on legal reasoning, for your guilt or innocence.

At any moment during the trial, you can plead guilty to all charges against you or certain charges against you.

The trial before a judge only

At the end of the trial, the judge must decide if you are guilty of each charge brought against you.  You may be found:

not guilty: you are acquitted of the charges brought against you;

guilty: the judge will determine your sentence (prison, fine, community projects, etc.).

You may be found guilty on some charges, and not guilty on others. 

In addition, the judge may find you guilty of a crime of lesser importance than the original charge. 

The judge may announce the judgment immediately or takes time to consider it at more length. It may be given orally or in writing.

The trial before a judge and jury

If the trial is held before a jury, the jurors listen to the judge's instructions and then withdraw to decide on a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

If the jury finds you guilty, the judge determines then the sentence.

Verdict of not criminally responsible

If the matter is raised, the judge or the jury can give a verdict of not criminally responsible for mental disorders. If it happens, your case will be given to the Review Board for mental disorders of Québec. This hyperlink will open in a new window.

To be found not criminally responsible, evidence proving mental disorders must be presented before the Tribunal, including an expert witness.

The judge may sentence you:

  • as soon as you plead guilty;
  • as soon as you are found guilty.

However, sentencing normally takes place at another hearing. In the meantime, the judge may hold a hearing at which the prosecuting attorney and your lawyer can submit: 

  • relevant evidence to help the judge decide the sentence;
  • observations on the sentence the judge should apply.

They can also call witnesses, including the victim, and expert witnesses who can provide information to help the judge determine the sentence. 

The judge may ask: 

  • a probation officer to prepare a presentencing report;
  • a youth delegate to prepare a pre-decision report, a specialist with the sexual offenders of Child and youth protection centre if you are under 18 years old.

These documents will focus on your personality and criminal record, among other things.

If the victim has completed and submitted the form Victim Impact Statement This hyperlink will open in a new window., the judge must also take into account the victim's physical and mental injuries and financial losses.

Objectives of the sentence

The judge must render a sentence that is fair and reasonable and proportional to the nature and gravity of the offence committed. The purpose of the sentence is to:

  • protect society;
  • denounce unlawful conduct;
  • deter other people from committing offences.

The judge may choose a sentence that will assist in your rehabilitation. 

You may also be required to provide reparation for the harm done to the victim, for example by paying an amount of money as compensation.

When deciding your sentence, among other things, the judge will consider: 

  • the circumstances of the crime;
  • its severity;
  • your degree of accountability;
  • the consequences of the crime on the victim.

If you consider that the judge has made an error, you may appeal the judgment.

The prosecuting attorney may also appeal the judgment. You, like the prosecutor, have 30 days after the date of the end of the trial to appeal the judgment.

In some cases, it is not necessary to apply for leave to appeal, since an appeal may lie from your case by operation of law.

If the Court of Appeal agrees to hear your case, they may confirm, amend or strike down the judgment, or order the holding of a new trial.

It may take several months between the date of the end of the trial and the decision rendered by the Court of Appeal.

You can also read

Judicial process for children

  1. Filing a complaint - Meeting with the investigator
  2. Police investigation
  3. Arrest of the suspect - Request to initiate proceedings
  4. Meeting with the prosecutor and the child
  5. Laying of charges by the prosecutor
  6. Appearance of the accused
  7. Bail hearing of the accused
  8. Meeting with the prosecutor and the child before the preliminary inquiry - Preliminary inquiry, in some instances
  9. Meeting with the prosecutor and the child before the trial
  10. Trial - Testimony of the child
  11. Juge or jury verdict
  12. Meeting with the prosecutor and the child if needed
  13. Suggestions for the sentence
    1. Giving the statement of the child victim about crime consequences
    2. Testimony of the child if needed
  14. Sentence

Last update: July 13, 2022

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