Script 212 gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call Lawyer Referral at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.
No one likes going to court. Some people are terrified at the thought of it. And if charged, they plan to go in, plead guilty, and get out as fast as possible. That's a normal reaction. But it may also be a big mistake, because a conviction can seriously affect the rest of your life. This script explains what to do before pleading guilty and what happens if you plead guilty. You should also check the following scripts:
- 203, called “Conditional Sentences, Probation and Discharges”
- 205, called “Criminal Records and Applying for a Record Suspension”
- 210, called “If You Receive an Appearance Notice or Summons”
- 211, called “Defending Yourself Against a Criminal Charge”
The script does not apply to anyone under 18 years old. People under 18 are automatically entitled to a lawyer at no cost. And they need a parent or guardian to be with them in court at their first court appearance. For information about young people and criminal law, check scripts 225, called “Young People and Criminal Law” and 226, called “Youth Justice Court Trials.”
What should you do before deciding how to plead?
At your first court appearance, find the prosecutor, also known as the Crown Counsel (the Crown). Identify yourself and ask the Crown for two things:
- the particulars (the written reports by the police officers and witnesses); and
- the initial sentencing position (what the Crown suggests for the sentence if you plead guilty). Review this material, with a lawyer if possible. There is usually a lawyer available at the courthouse known has duty counsel, who may be able to assist you at no cost and review the particulars with you. You may also wish to hire a lawyer for that purpose.
If you are charged with a criminal offence, your first reaction may be to plead guilty and get it over with. If you plead guilty, you will have a criminal record and a penalty (sentence). Both these can seriously affect you. A criminal record can prevent you from traveling to other countries, getting certain jobs, being bonded (which some jobs require), and applying for citizenship. Check script 205, called “Criminal Records and Applying for a Record Suspension”, for more information.
Even if you believe you are guilty, it’s still all right to plead not guilty, and make the Crown prove the case. The law presumes that you are innocent, and the Crown must prove that you are guilty. On the other hand, if you know that you are guilty and that the Crown can prove it, you may want to plead guilty and avoid an unnecessary trial. You should discuss your case with a lawyer before deciding what to do.
- You may think you’re guilty when in fact you’re not, because there is a legal defence to the charge that you don’t know about. That is why it is very important that you review the particulars with a lawyer to help you decide what to do. If you think you might be financially eligible for legal aid, and the Crown is asking for jail in the initial sentencing position, then you should apply for legal aid.
- If you have a legal defence, you would plead not guilty and a trial date would be set. At the trial, the Crown must prove the allegations of the offence. If you schedule a trial, you will need to retain a lawyer, or else represent yourself. On the other hand, if you do not have a defence and you admit the allegations, your option is to talk to the Crown about diversion, or else plead guilty.
- If you have a previous criminal record, even for an unrelated type of offence, you may be facing a stiffer penalty, possibly jail.
- Some offences may have a minimum fine or a minimum jail time. For example, if you are charged with impaired driving and are found guilty, your driver’s license will be automatically suspended, even for a first offence.
- You may be eligible for diversion. If so, the criminal charge is dropped, or dismissed.
What is diversion?
If the charge against you is a relatively minor one and especially if it is your first offence, and you regret what you did, you may be eligible for alternative measures (also known as diversion). Alternative measures programs are managed by a probation office, which deals with charges outside the court system. If the Crown agrees to recommend you for alternative measures and the probation office accepts you for this option, you have to carry out the conditions of an alternative measures contract. This could include community service work or counseling. In return, you will not get criminal penalties or a criminal record and the charge will be dropped.
How do you plead guilty?
If after reviewing the particulars you decide to plead guilty, it’s fairly straightforward. You get an official document telling you when you have to appear in court for the sentencing. On that date, dress neatly and go to court, at least 30 minutes early. You may want to speak to Duty Counsel before you plead guilty. Duty Counsel can speak on your behalf during the sentencing if you wish. If you want to plead guilty, then find the Crown and tell them what you want to do.
During the sentencing hearing, the Crown will tell the judge about the facts of the offence, usually reading from the police report and witness statements. Listen carefully, because if you disagree with anything, you can say so later. In fact, you can plead guilty only if you agree with all the important facts. For example, if you agree that you hit your spouse, you could plead guilty to an assault charge. But if you hit your spouse only after your spouse punched and kicked you first, and that part is not in the police report, then the judge may not accept a guilty plea. Instead, he or she may order a trial. Or the particulars may say you punched someone, but you say you only pushed them. In these types of cases, you have to tell the court what happened and explain that you disagree with what the Crown said. The Crown and the judge have to decide whether to accept your version of the events.
If you have any previous convictions, the Crown may ask you if you admit them. If you don't admit them, the Crown will get an opportunity to prove them.
The Crown will suggest to the judge what sentence should be imposed. For example, the Crown may suggest you have counseling or no contact with someone. You don't have to agree and judge does not have to follow the Crown’s suggestions – even if you agree with them. The judge can give you a different sentence.
Once the Crown is finished making their submissions, it is your turn to speak to the judge.
What will the judge do?
The judge may ask you questions, such as whether you disagree with anything the Crown said. You might agree that you are guilty but disagree with some of the circumstances. The judge may ask you why you committed the offence. Sometimes that’s hard to answer because you may not know. If that’s the case, say so. If you feel bad about what you did, tell the judge, even though you are embarrassed. If the judge believes that you are sincere, and remorseful, that will help.
The judge will want to know some things about you, such as your age, your marital status, how many people you support, if you are working and your plans. It’s important to give the judge any important information about these things. For example, if you don’t have any money to pay a fine, or if a criminal record would ruin your plans for joining the armed forces, explain those things to the judge.
The judge may ask and you may discuss whether there were any problems that contributed such as addictions, anger problems, and financial problems and whether these things are still a problem and whether counseling or treatment is necessary.
Try to get a letter from your employer or family friend that knows about your situation. If they can say something good about you, it may help the judge have a good opinion of you. For example, if you were unemployed when you committed the offense and that was partly why you did it, but you now have a steady job, it will show the court you are working to improve your behavior.
If alcohol or drugs contributed to your actions, but you can show the court a letter from the local Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous group saying that you have been attending regular sessions, it will help when the judge decides what penalty to give you.
After everything is said, the judge will give you a sentence, or penalty. Depending on the offence and your background, it could be a discharge, a fine, probation, or jail. Check script 203, called “Conditional Sentences, Probation and Discharges”, for details on sentences.
If you are fined, you may ask for time to pay. Depending on the amount of the fine, the judge may give you a long time to pay.
If you do not understand something, ask the judge to explain it to you.
Legal Services Society has three useful publications on this topic:
To view them, go to www.legalaid.bc.ca. Click “Our publications”, and then under “I want to find a publication by subject,” click “Criminal law”.
A criminal conviction can seriously affect you for the rest of your life. You should only plead guilty after thinking carefully about your situation. You should talk to a lawyer and get some initial advice before you plead guilty. Then you can decide whether you want to hire a lawyer to represent you in court and whether to plead guilty or not guilty.
[updated August 2011]
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