Imagine that the Ontario Provincial Police have charged you with a criminal offence – a mid-level offence under Canada’s Criminal Code, punishable by potential imprisonment if convicted – suppose further that you are innocent of the crime. How should you set about defending yourself from the charges, and should you hire a criminal defence lawyer even though you’re innocent?
Canada’s judicial system allows criminal defendants to defend themselves without legal representation. However, no matter the basis of your innocence, we suggest you carefully consider the potential limitations of defending yourself. While you have undoubtedly seen courtroom dramas in movies and on TV, your understanding of criminal procedure, evidence rules, and common defence strategies is likely limited. This puts you at a distinct disadvantage as your case progresses towards a conclusion. At the very least, you should talk to the court’s duty counsel before deciding whether to defend yourself.
Duty counsel will not represent you in court, but offer free legal advice. By talking to duty counsel, you can better assess what you may be getting into by defending yourself. Along with a limited understanding of the law and court procedure, consider these other reasons why you should hire a criminal defence lawyer even if you are innocent:
1. Your Lawyer Will Assess the Grounds Supporting the Arrest
If you know you are innocent, why are the police convinced you committed the offence, and on what basis did they lay the charge(s)?Answering these two questions is among the first tasks a criminal defence lawyer typically addresses. Criminal charges must be based on “reasonable and probable grounds.” Given the subjectivity of reasonable and probable grounds, police sometimes make arrests based on weak ones.
If your lawyer can prove that the arrest lacked such reasonable and probable grounds, the charge(s) will likely be dropped, withdrawn, or stayed, which marks a successful outcome from the get-go. As a layman, you may not be able to effectively assess and challenge the reasonable and probable grounds supporting the arrest. Thus, your defence lawyer’s work in this regard can sometimes prove invaluable.
In addition, even if the grounds support the charge(s), your lawyer now has greater insight into why police believed that you committed the offence and the basis for the charge(s). This insight gives your lawyer with the initial ammunition to strategize a robust defence.
2. Ensure Your Charter Rights Have Been Protected
Your criminal defence lawyer comprehensively understands the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As such, your lawyer can ensure that your rights are protected and that you can take advantage of these rights in the context of criminal procedure.
Your lawyer will likely advise you to exercise your Section 11(c) Charter Right to remain silent. Your lawyer will also examine all elements of the arrest and Crown’s case to assess whether any of your rights may have been violated during the investigation, arrest, and processing.
Charter Rights violations and police procedural mistakes provide your lawyer with additional ammunition to weaken the Crown’s case. As a layman, you may not be able to effectively take advantage of your rights or uncover potential Charter Rights violations.
3. Provide Sound Legal Advice and Guidance
With criminal law expertise and familiarity with criminal court procedures, your lawyer can provide sound legal advice and guide you through the process.
Your expected inexperience with criminal law, evidence rules, and criminal procedure puts you at a disadvantage. If you have evidence supporting your innocence, you may not know how to best utilize it to clear yourself pre-trial or effectively introduce it during trial.
4. Secure Evidence in Support of Your Innocence
Your criminal defence lawyer is trained to recognize how evidence is used to support or dispute allegations of the offence. One of your lawyer’s tasks is to secure evidence that supports your innocence, and experienced lawyers can often uncover potential evidence that their clients may not have even thought of.
5. Help Navigate Your Way Through the Criminal Trial Process
Prior to trial, your criminal case proceeds through several administrative procedures the Court system uses to secure pre-trial resolutions or, absent that, prepare for the actual trial. These procedures include:
- First Appearance
- Crown Pre-Trial
- Judicial Pre-Trial
As a layman, you would likely be disadvantaged by needing to learn how to address these procedures or use them to your advantage effectively. Additionally, defendants are often limited in how they are allowed to participate in some procedures, such as the Crown and Judicial pre-trial meetings.
During these procedural maneuverings, your defence lawyer can effectively raise issues and evidence about your innocence to secure a favourable pre-trial resolution. Your lawyer will also ensure that Crown prosecutors fully disclose the evidence they plan to use against you.
6. Strategize an Effective Defence
While your innocence is likely paramount to you personally, proving your innocence may not be a central focus at trial. Instead, the Crown must prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” based on two factors: that you committed the criminal act, and that you did so with intent and/or knowledge.
As such, your lawyer’s defence strategy on your behalf will largely raise doubts about the Crown’s narrative of the offence and its supporting evidence. Any relevant evidence supporting innocence will also be used where possible, but their goal during trial is disproving guilt rather than proving innocence.
In strategizing your defence, your lawyer may also turn to any number of recognized criminal defence strategies as warranted by evidence and case details.
7. Represent Your Best Interests at Trial
During the course of their work, your defence lawyer will have carefully explained the charge(s) you are facing and the potential penalties that come with a conviction. Your lawyer will likely also continuously advise you on best- and worst-case outcomes that may arise through the pre-trial procedures.
Depending on the evidence and case details, your lawyer will advise you on decisions you should make to secure the most favourable results. Despite your innocence, your lawyer may suggest a pre-trial outcome that doesn’t prove innocence, especially if the Crown has a strong case against you. However, you are the client, and if you are bound and determined to argue your innocence in court, your lawyer is duty-bound to steer your defence towards securing an acquittal.
8. Help Secure Your Pre-Trial Freedom, if Needed
If you’re facing pre-trial incarceration due to the severity of criminal charges, the services of a criminal defence lawyer could prove invaluable.
Should the Crown seek pre-trial detention, you must successfully navigate the Ontario court system’s Judicial Interim Release (bail) process. Failure to make bail will keep you in jail and limit your ability to strategize an effective criminal defence.
9. Can You Afford a Potential Life-Changing Conviction?
One of the last questions you should ask yourself before deciding whether or not to defend yourself from criminal charges is, can you afford a life-changing conviction?
Along with the loss of freedom that imprisonment entails, a conviction leads to a permanent criminal record that can impact many facets of your life going forward, including:
- Risks to current and future employment.
- Impediments to licensing in certain professions.
- Risk of deportation and denial of residency or citizenship depending on status.
- Restrictions on visiting other countries.
- Potential impacts to child custody and visitation rights.
- Adoption denial.
- Harsher sentencing for future criminal convictions.
When to Hire a Criminal Defence Lawyer
If you’re facing pre-trial detention, it’s in your best interest to immediately secure the services of an experienced criminal defence lawyer. Otherwise, you should hire a lawyer as soon as possible.
The sooner you retain a lawyer, the quicker they can begin work to prove your innocence pre-trial or begin strategizing the most effective defence. In fact, the more severe the charges, the more important it is for your lawyer to begin work immediately.
At Vilkhov Law, our team is here for you to help you access the legal services you need. Reach out to a member of our team to schedule your consultation in the following areas: