8 Procedural Steps in a Criminal Trial


A criminal trial is a formal hearing to determine the innocence or guilt of an accused person. In Canada, the criminal trial process has specific, consistent steps to maintain a fair process for all. The Crown must prove that an accused person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before they receive sentencing.

While the most serious offences are sometimes decided upon by a jury, most cases in Canada are decided upon by a judge. If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, you may be wondering what to expect in the way of timing and procedures.

We’ve put together a list of the procedural steps in a criminal trial to provide more clarity:

Step #1: An Arrest

The first step for any criminal trial in Canada is an arrest. Once you have been arrested, you are either released with an expectation that you will appear in court or you will be held in custody until you can appear before a judge.

Step #2: First Appearance Set

The second step in a criminal trial is your first appearance set. Your first court appearance allows you to indicate how you intend to proceed with the charges against you. If you plead guilty, you will have no need for a trial, but you should have sentencing submissions on hand to explain a bit about you, your background and the circumstances of your offence. If you plead not guilty, you agree to go to trial for settlement and will need a criminal lawyer to help defend your case.

Step #3: Trial Date Set

Once you have entered a plea of not guilty at your first court appearance, you will have a formal trial date set. If you have been charged with a more serious—indictable—offence, you will have the opportunity to elect whether you will be tried before a judge alone or a judge and jury. The length of your trial will be determined by several variables, including the nature and complexity of your charges, the number of witnesses called and the number of issues raised.

Step #4: Pretrial Preparations

Your lawyer will help to prepare you for your trial. During pretrial preparations, you can expect your lawyer to answer any questions and explain the overall trial strategy. Depending on the nature of your charges, there may be added legal steps, before you even reach a trial. Your lawyer will examine issues of disclosure or you may be called to a preliminary inquiry if there are relevant issues called upon for examination, either by the Crown or defence.

Step #5: Trial – Crown Calls Witnesses

A trial begins with a formal reading of the charges against the accused, when you will be given the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty. Assuming you plead not guilty, the Crown will call a series of witnesses and experts to share their experiences—what they saw, heard, witnessed or what they know to be true as an expert in their field. The defence will then have the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses, hoping to find weaknesses in their testimony.

Step #6: Trial – Defence Put to Election

In Canada, there is no obligation for the defence to call any evidence or witnesses, but once the Crown has completed their case, the defence has the option to do so. This will likely be a strategic decision between you and your lawyer. If the defence does call witnesses, they will question them first, followed by a cross examination by the Crown. In essence, this means it is not always necessary for you to testify in your own defence.

Step #7: Lawyers Make Legal Submissions

Once the Crown and defence have presented their witnesses and evidence and have had the opportunity to question and cross examine, they make their legal submissions to the judge or jury. In these arguments, based on existing laws and the evidence presented in the case, the lawyers work to convince the judge or jury to decide for or against criminal charges.

Step #8: Verdict and Sentencing

After submissions have been made by both parties, the judge or jury will deliberate, based on evidence. This can take a few moments or several days. Once a decision is rendered, the accused will either be fully acquitted or found guilty of one or more offenses. If found guilty, a secondary process of sentencing will follow. If acquitted, you will be free to leave. If the Crown or the accused do not agree with the court’s verdict, they may appeal to a higher court.

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, it is important to understand what lies ahead. The criminal trial process in Canada is designed to be consistent and fair, with predictable steps and procedures. It is helpful to understand the steps in a criminal trial, so you know what to expect, when next steps will likely happen and what questions you should likely have ready for your lawyer.