Glossary of Legal Terms
If you are involved in any legal proceeding,
you will probably hear terms you are not familiar with. Feel free
to ask your lawyer or community legal worker the meaning of these
terms. Following, however, is a list of definitions of common
legal terms, which can help you to understand legal problems and
procedures. Please note, these definitions are short and should
not be relied on to conduct your legal affairs.
An offender who receives an absolute discharge is deemed not to
have been convicted of the offence. However, since the offender
pleaded or was found guilty, he or she will still have a federal
criminal record. A judge can only order a discharge if it is in
the offender's best interests and not contrary to the public interest.
A discharge cannot be given if the offence carries a minimum punishment
or is punishable by imprisonment for 14 years or life.
A finding of not guilty in a criminal case.
A law passed by Parliament or a provincial legislature. Also called
A judicial proceeding in either civil or criminal law.
A temporary postponement of court.
A sworn, written declaration that a certain set of facts is true.
A non-religious oath given before testifying.
To suggest that something is true without necessarily being able
to prove it.
Examination by a higher court of the decision of a lower court
or tribunal. The higher court may affirm, vary or reverse the
A notice issued by a police officer requiring the accused's appearance
before a judge or justice of the peace to answer a charge. An
appearance notice is typically given instead of arresting the
The process in criminal law by which the accused's name is called,
the charge is read, and the accused pleads guilty or not guilty.
If the offence is one that gives the accused a choice, he or she
will also elect at the arraignment to be tried by a judge or by
a judge and jury in a higher court, or by a judge in a lower court.
Monetary or other security put up by the accused or by someone
on the accused's behalf to insure the accused's appearance at
A court order empowering the police to arrest a person. These
warrants are most often issued in cases of contempt of court,
failure to appear or where an indictment is being laid.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt:
This is the rigorous standard of proof that the Crown prosecutor
is required to meet in a criminal case. This means that the evidence
must be so complete and convincing that any reasonable doubts
as to the guilt of the accused are erased from the mind of the
judge or jury. The Crown must prove each element of the offence
beyond a reasonable doubt.
Cause of Action:
The legal basis underlying the plaintiff's civil suit against
An action or lawsuit brought by a representative plaintiff(s)
on behalf of a group of people who have been similarly affected.
An action brought by a defendant against a plaintiff. The defendant's
counterclaim is dealt with in the same trial as the plaintiff's
Similar to an absolute discharge, except that the offender is
subject to specified conditions contained in a probation order.
If the offender violates these conditions, the discharge may be
revoked. A conviction will then be entered, and an appropriate
Contempt of Court:
A criminal offence that typically involves interfering with the
administration of justice, ignoring the rules of court or defying
Evidence that confirms or strengthens evidence already presented
to the court.
The lawyer representing the Crown in a criminal prosecution.
Monetary compensation for financial or property losses, emotional
or physical injuries, loss of earnings, and costs of care.
The person sued in a civil action or charged with a criminal offence.
Dual Procedure Offence:
In Canada, all criminal offences are divided into one of three
summary conviction, indictable, and dual procedure offences. In
a dual procedure (hybrid or Crown electable) offence, the Crown
prosecutor has the choice to proceed by summary conviction or
by indictment. The distinction between summary conviction and
indictable offences is based on the formality of the procedures
used to try them. Once the Crown has made its decision, the offence
is subject to the normal rules of procedure for a summary conviction
or indictable offence.
Election by the Accused:
The Criminal Code gives accused charged with certain offences
the choice to be tried by judge and jury or by a judge alone in
a higher court, or by a provincial judge in a lower court.
Election by the Crown:
In cases involving dual procedure offences, the procedure by which
the Crown decides to prosecute a case as a summary conviction
offence or as an indictable offence. The Crown is more likely
to proceed by indictment if the circumstances of the offence are
more serious than a typical case, or if the accused is a repeat
Examination for Discovery:
In civil actions, the parties are given an opportunity to question
each other prior to trial to discover the details of the other
side's case. The examination for discovery allows the parties
to narrow the issues and focus the trial on contested matters.
A writ issued by a judge ordering the release of a person who
is being detained or imprisoned unlawfully.
The category of criminal offences that are subject to formal and
complex procedures. For example, most indictable offences give
the accused the right to elect to be tried in a higher court by
a judge or by a judge and jury. Generally, the indictable offences
are more serious than summary conviction offences, and carry lengthy
maximum sentences. For example, impaired driving causing death
is an indictable offence, and is subject to a maximum sentence
of 14 years imprisonment.
When someone reasonably believes that a person has committed an
indictable offence, he or she may lay an information in writing
and under oath before a judge or justice of the peace. If the
judge or justice of the peace concludes that there is sufficient
evidence of an offence, he or she may issue either a summons or
warrant for the accused's arrest.
A court order restraining a party from doing some act (prohibitory
injunction), or requiring the performance of some act (mandatory
injunction). Injunctions may be permanent or temporary.
A sentence of imprisonment that is served in intervals (usually
weekends), over a period of time. Under the Criminal Code, a judge
can only impose an intermittent sentence if the term of imprisonment
is 90 days or less. The offender must comply with the conditions
of a probation order when not in confinement.
Judicial Interim Release:
A judicial order releasing the accused from custody prior to trial.
The release is unconditional unless the prosecutor shows cause
to impose certain conditions. A judicial interim release cannot
be granted for certain serious criminal offences, like murder,
mutiny or treason.
The process of trying a dispute in court.
A program that assists those who require a lawyer but cannot afford
one. In some provinces, legal aid may only be available for more
serious criminal offences.
In most circumstances, an inmate will be credited with one day
of earned remission for every two days served in prison. Mandatory
parole is the term used to describe situations in which the inmate
is released as a result of his or her accumulated earned remission.
Inmates released under mandatory parole are subject to mandatory
supervision by a parole officer.
The identification number assigned by the police to a particular
crime under investigation.
The release of an offender from prison prior to the end of his
or her sentence. The offender continues to serve the sentence
outside of prison under the supervision of a parole officer, and
must obey specific conditions or risk returning to custody.
Negotiations between the defence counsel and Crown prosecutor
concerning the charges and pleas of the accused. The Crown may
accept a guilty plea on a lesser charge instead of incurring the
expense and time of a trial on the original charge. The Crown
may also agree to make a joint submission to the judge on the
appropriate sentence, if the accused agrees to plead guilty.
Prior to sentencing, the judge may order a probation officer to
prepare a pre-sentence report. The report summarizes the accused's
family life, personal situation and background. Pre-sentence reports
are used to help judges decide on an appropriate sentence for
A sentence that requires the offender to obey certain stipulated
conditions. Some conditions, like keeping the peace and being
of good behaviour, are compulsory in every probation order. Others
conditions are left to the judge's discretion. Probation is only
available where the offence does not carry a mandatory jail term.
The probation order can be no more than three years in duration.
It is a federal criminal offence to violate any term of probation
without a reasonable excuse.
A formal promise made by the accused to appear and respond to
criminal charges. Depending on the circumstances, the accused
may enter the recognizance before a police officer or a magistrate.
A form of legislation enacted under the authority of a statute
by the Governor-General in Council (the federal cabinet), the
Lieutenant-Governor in Council (a provincial cabinet), a Minister
or government official, or an administrative board. Typically,
the regulations will set out detailed provisions that are not
essential to include in the statute. This power to enact regulations
permits the government to act expeditiously and introduce changes
without having to enact a new statute.
Summary Conviction Offences:
The category of criminal offences that are subject to less formal
and complex procedures. Summary offences are tried by justices
or provincial court judges. They are usually less serious crimes
than indictable offences and carry lower penalties.
A judge may choose to put an offender on probation and suspend
the imposition of the sentence. If the offender breaches probation,
the judge may order the offender returned to court, and impose
a jail term for the original offence. As well, the offender may
be charged with the federal criminal offence of breaching probation.
In issuing a suspended sentence, the court must consider the accused's
age and character, the nature of the offence and the circumstances
surrounding its commission.
Statements made in court by a witness under oath or affirmation.
A civil action arising from a wrongful act or omission, in which
a plaintiff may sue a defendant for damages.
A written order of a court.
Young Offenders Act:
A federal statute that establishes how young people will be treated,
tried and sentenced for criminal offences. The Act applies to
suspects who are over 12 years old and under 18. In certain limited
circumstances involving very serious offences, those who are 14
or older may be transferred to adult court. Among other things,
the Young Offenders Act dramatically limits the maximum punishment
that might otherwise apply for an offence, and creates special
record-keeping provisions to protect young offenders from the
adverse publicity and consequences of having a criminal record.