Your First Court Appearance For Criminal Charges

April 19, 2014

You’ve been given an appearance notice by the police or released on
bail and have been informed of your first required court appearance. What will
happen at that appearance? What will be expected of you? What will happen to
your criminal charges on that date? If this is your first time being charged
with a crime, the anxiety over your first court appearance is understandable.
Learning a few simple facts about that first appearance, and precisely what your
obligations and options are, will assist you in approaching the court
proceedings in a rational and productive manner.

The first order of business is making sure you know the correct date,
court address, and courtroom number, so that you show up at the right place and
on time. It is a criminal offence to fail to attend a scheduled court date, and
the most immediate consequence of missing a court date is that a bench warrant
for your arrest will be issued, and you will be kept in jail until that charge
is dealt with unless you can show cause at a bail hearing why the court should
trust that you will attend court as required if granted release. If you’ve lost
the paperwork showing your next court date and you aren’t sure what the date is,
call the court house to find out. If the courthouse doesn’t know, call the
police service that charged you. The onus is on you to figure this out, and you
can always contact a lawyer for assistance.

The other reason for being on time is that you will likely not be the
only person appearing in the courtroom that day. There may be dozens of people,
maybe over a hundred people, attending court that day for their first appearance
or for one of many appearances, and the courtroom will not necessarily have
enough seating capacity for everyone appearing that day. If you do not get a
seat, you’ll have to wait outside for one to open up or for your matter to be
called. The best advice is to plan to be the first person into the courtroom
when it opens up. Plan for heavy traffic in what might be an unfamiliar travel
route, and plan to have time to find a parking space (only one of the
Toronto-area criminal courts has a free parking lot).

Once court begins, you’ll see that this appearance is rather
administrative in nature. If the court appearance is in the GTA, it will likely
be presided over by a Justice of the Peace (wearing a green sash), not a judge
(judges wear red sashes). A Justice of the Peace cannot preside over a criminal
trial or a guilty plea, and your first court appearance is not a trial or the
time to enter your plea. You will not be asked whether you are pleading guilty
or not guilty. 

The primary purpose of the first appearance, practically speaking, is
for the Crown to provide initial disclosure. Disclosure is the compilation of
the Crown’s evidence in support of the criminal charges, and of any other
relevant material in the hands of the government (whether that’s the
prosecution, the police, or another government agency). If disclosure from the
Crown is available, it should be provided to you in court. Your case will then
be adjourned for some amount of time to allow you to review the disclosure and
to consult with or retain a lawyer, and to otherwise determine how you want to
deal with the charges. The next appearance will also be administrative, but the
court may expect an indication from you as to whether you’re hiring a lawyer,
and what you want to do next. If initial disclosure is not provided at the
first appearance then the Crown will ask for more time to provide it to you,
and will request a future court date to allow for this to
happen.

Other things may happen on the first court date. For some offences the
Crown may indicate that the matter has been “screened for diversion”, meaning
that you’ll have the option on that date, or some future date, to do something
or enter some type of program outside of the court proceedings which results in
the Crown withdrawing (or “dropping”) the charge upon completion. If diversion
is offered, you’ll still have the option of adjourning the matter so that you
have a chance to consult with a lawyer first. You may also have the option at
your first appearance of moving your case to a courtroom presided over by a
judge and pleading guilty, although it is highly inadvisable to do so without
getting thorough legal advice.

The exact process as to how everything happens in the courtroom at a
first appearance can vary from courthouse to courthouse, but generally all
accused persons wait for their name to be called. When your name is called, you
approach the front of the courtroom. You may be asked to confirm your name. When
addressing the Court, you are to refer to a Justice of the Peace as “Your
Worship”, and a judge is referred to as “Your Honour”. As discussed, disclosure
will be provided, or not, and diversion will be mentioned by the Crown if that
is being offered. A next court date will be proposed, and if you have a
scheduling conflict with that date then you must bring it up at this point. You
may be given a reminder slip of your next court date. After all of this you’ll
be on your way. Without having a lawyer present, little else can or will be done
at your first appearance, as everyone is usually in a hurry to clear through all
the cases that are on the court docket that day.

The first appearance (and subsequent administrative appearances) can
consume a lot of your time. On a busy court day, your case may not be called
until the afternoon even if your appearance in court is scheduled for 9:00am
(remember, though, that you are required by law to attend court at the specified
time, no matter how busy the court is). Customarily, accused person’s who have
hired lawyers to attend the appearance are called up first, followed by accused
persons who do not have a lawyer present, called in an order that is determined
by the Crown (usually alphabetically as listed on the court docket).

If you do not have a lawyer present, you will be assisted by duty
counsel when your matter is called. Duty counsel is lawyer paid by Legal Aid
Ontario to generally assist all accused persons appearing in court that day so that the
appearance goes smoothly. The duty counsel in court that day will generally be
very busy assisting everyone with their appearances and will likely not have
time to conduct any substantial discussions about your matter while the Court
is in session.

You can avoid attending your first appearance entirely by hiring a
lawyer to appear for you by way of a designation. This is a form which includes
a signed statement by you that you are designating the lawyer to appear for you,
and a signed acknowledgement by the lawyer that he or she will take on the
obligation of attending the court appearance on your behalf. Speak to your
chosen criminal defence lawyer about how to do this.

Contact a lawyer as far ahead of time as possible to secure legal
representation for your first appearance.

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