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Criminal Trial Stages: What Happens and When

Getting caught up in a criminal prosecution can be a bewildering experience, especially for first-time offenders. In addition to the threat of incarceration and penalties, the entire process has its own timelines and vocabulary. Understanding the various stages of a criminal prosecution can help eliminate the stress of the unknown.

The most important decision you can make early in the process is to hire a skilled and experienced Calgary criminal defence lawyer who can guide you through the unfamiliar. Your rights, and your freedom, depend on hiring a criminal defence lawyer who knows the players in Calgary and throughout Alberta —police, prosecutors, probation officers, and judges—and has the experience needed to realistically assess the evidence and develop a strategy that serves your best interests. At Bulwark Law, we rigorously represent our clients to the fullest extent of the law.

What Is a Criminal Trial?

The primary purpose of a criminal trial is to ensure fairness in determining the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant. The entire process is governed by rules that have evolved from common law, the Canadian Criminal Code, legal precedents from other criminal cases, the Charter of Rights, and provincial law. This collection of laws and procedures covers all of the components of a criminal trial—police surveillance and investigations, interrogations, searches, how evidence is gathered, the arrest, and all of the preliminary judicial aspects of bringing a case to trial. The vast majority of criminal prosecutions end with a plea bargain, where the defendant admits to a lesser charge in exchange for forgoing the right to a trial. However, no one should accept a plea without a thorough examination of the evidence and the methods used to acquire that evidence.

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How Does a Criminal Trial Work?

There are distinct stages to a criminal trial. There are the preliminary stages, occurring before the actual trial: arrest, release, first appearance, disclosure and preliminary motions. There is the trial itself. And there are the post-trial events of verdict, and sentencing, if necessary. At each phase, it is important to be represented by a skilled and experienced criminal defence lawyer who understands how precious your liberty and life are, and who will rigorously advocate on your behalf. Although you have the right to self-representation, it’s better to have the advice of counsel to guide you through the complexities of a criminal trial.

What are the Stages of a Criminal Trial in Calgary?

As noted, a criminal trial has distinct phases, and at each phase, there are opportunities to assess the viability of the Crown’s case and the legality of the investigation leading up to the arrest.

Before the Criminal Trial: The first steps to a criminal prosecution involve arrest, release, first appearance, and disclosure. It’s important to remember that when confronted by the police, it is always in your best interests to remain silent and to request an opportunity to confer with a lawyer immediately. You do not want to waive any of your rights without a full understanding of the consequences. If you are a first offender, or the charges do not involve the threat of harm to others, the police can release you without a judicial hearing, serving you with a notice to appear in court on a specific day and time. However, if the charges are serious or involve violence or threats to public safety, you might have to appear before a judge who will set the conditions for your release.

The next phase is the first appearance. This is when the court reads the charges against the criminal defendant. This is when the defendant usually enters a plea; however, no defendant should enter a plea without conferring with criminal defence counsel. Everyone is entitled to have a professional lawyer examine the charges and evidence to help determine the strength of the Crown’s case before entering a plea. This first appearance offers the criminal defendant and the criminal defence lawyer an opportunity to peek inside the police investigatory process.

The pretrial process involves reviewing all of the evidence, and compelling the production of additional evidence that the police or Crown might be withholding. This is when a savvy criminal defence lawyer can pick up any irregularities in the police operation and consequential weaknesses in the Crown’s case. The court schedules a pre-trial meeting when prosecutors meet with the defence lawyer to review the case and to begin negotiations on dismissal of charges, plea bargaining to a lesser charge, or moving forward towards a full trial. A favourable resolution pre-trial might include dismissal of charges, or reduced charges with no jail or prison time.

If no pre-trial resolution occurs between the Crown and the defence lawyer, then the judge might intercede as a mediator by calling a judicial pre-trial meeting to persuade the parties to come to an agreement to save the cost of the trial.

If the criminal defendant decides to enter a guilty plea at any time before trial, the judge will set a time for a hearing to ensure that the defendant fully understands that in entering a guilty plea, certain rights are being waived. It also provides time to prepare a mitigation statement in which the defendant explains the motivations for the illegal conduct, demonstrates their good character through evidence presented to the court, or promises to correct offending behaviors.

During the Criminal Trial: The length of a trial depends on several factors: the severity of the charges, the complexity of the case, the amount of evidence and number of witnesses, and whether the case is being heard by a judge alone or before a jury. Some trials can last a few hours, others a day or two, and complex cases can last for weeks or even months.

The Crown must prove all of the elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor will describe the charges, present evidence, and examine witnesses, with an opportunity to cross-examine by the defence. Once the Crown completes its case, the defence lawyer is given the chance to present their own witnesses, dispute evidence, and create a counter-narrative to the Crown’s version of the facts. Both sides give a closing argument, the judge instructs the jury, if there is a jury, and the jury confers in secret to determine guilt or innocence.

After the Criminal Trial: The best result, of course, is that a judge or jury returns a verdict of “not guilty.” In that event, the defendant is acquitted and immediately set free. However, if a “guilty” verdict is rendered, then the judge has the option of sentencing that day or setting a time for a sentencing hearing at a later time. Especially in complex cases, this later sentencing hearing allows the Crown and the defence to develop justifications of sentencing or release without jail or prison time.

Facing the Verdict

If found guilty, the defendant must face the consequences at sentencing. The judge will consider the severity of the charges, any criminal history, any mitigating circumstances, and whether the defendant has shown remorse when deciding how to sentence within the constraints of the Canadian Criminal Code.

Is Hiring a Criminal Defence Lawyer Worth It?

At each phase of a criminal trial—pre-trial, trial, or after trial—your freedom and your rights to fairness are best protected by hiring a skilled and experienced criminal defence lawyer to navigate you and your family through the complexities of a criminal prosecution. You need expert eyes to examine the evidence gathered by the Crown. You need legal expertise to negotiate a fair resolution pre-trial. You deserve compassionate and savvy legal counsel to defend you in a trial. No one should go this alone.

Contact Bulwark Law Today

When facing criminal charges, your freedom and future are at stake. That is why you should retain Bulwark Law. Our skilled and compassionate lawyers have a strong reputation amongst judges and prosecutors in Calgary and throughout Alberta. We are known for our fierce representation with integrity, along with our full understanding of criminal law and procedure. We work hard to get the best results for our clients. Call 403 678 7360 or complete the contact form to arrange your free initial consultation.

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