Glossary of Legal Terms

The below defines and explains legal terms as understood in Canadian law. It is a collection of the terms frequently used throughout our case study materials, but far from a complete list of common legal terms.




Absolute discharge

Even though the accused was found guilty, the court does not register a conviction against him, with the result that he does not have a criminal record.


A person charged with a criminal offence. An accused person may or may not be guilty of what they are being charged with. The accused person may also be referred to as the defendant. Before being charged, a person may be known as a suspect. (Compare with Complainant, Perpetrator)


A judgment of “not-guilty” in a criminal proceeding. (Compare with Conviction, Withdrawn)

Actus reus

A criminal act. For a judge to find someone guilty of a criminal offense, there must be proof the person committed a criminal act (actus reus) AND have done so intentionally (mens rea).


When a court cases is postponed to a later date. Either the Crown Attorney or the accused can request an adjournment. People often ask for an adjournment to give them time to find a lawyer or to prepare their case.



The first court event in legal proceedings. A Justice of the Peace holds a hearing to decide if an accused person should be released with or without conditions, retained in custody or remanded. Release on bail often includes conditions/rules that must be followed by the accused person, including attending court as required. (Compare with Recognizance)

Beyond a reasonable doubt

In order for an accused to be found guilty, the evidence must establish “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they are guilty. In other words, there must be no reasonable explanation for what happened other than the accused did it. If there is any other reasonable explanation, the accused will be found not guilty.


A criminal charge for failing to comply with court-ordered conditions of bail or probation. Breach means “to break” – a breach is a charge for breaking the rules.



A formal allegation of committing an offence. Police officers will lay charges when they think enough evidence exists that a person has committed a criminal offence.


In criminal law, the complainant is the victim of an alleged offence. In the language used by police, lawyers and other criminal court officials, the victim of crime has different names at different stages of the process. First, she is the victim. She becomes a “complainant” when she goes to the police and gives a statement about what has happened. Once a charge is laid, and the case is passed to the Crown Attorney, she will become known as the “witness.”


Consent is defined in Canada’s Criminal Code in s. 273.1(1), as the voluntary agreement to engage in the sexual activity in question. The law focuses on what the person was actually thinking and feeling at the time of the sexual activity.


A criminal charge for which there was a finding of guilt. (Compare with Acquittal, Withdrawn)

Criminal Record

A person’s history of convictions for criminal offences.

Criminal Trial

When someone is charged with a criminal or provincial offence, the case begins proceeding towards a trial. Along the way, there are many opportunities for the case to be worked out without going to a trial. For instance, the accused person might plead guilty, the Crown might withdraw the charges or the defence lawyer and the Crown might work out a plea bargain. However, if this does not happen, the case will eventually go to a trial, at the end of which the accused will either be found guilty or not guilty. Following this phase, if the accused has been found guilty, a hearing is held to determine the appropriate penalty.


A type of questioning of a witness, including the victim, in court to test the reliability of the evidence they have given. Unlike direct examinations in court, which are conducted by the same side (Crown or defence) that called the witness, a cross-examination is conducted by the opposing side, typically in a manner to find holes in the witness’s testimony and to discredit them. It is very difficult to be cross-examined, as the lawyer can often make the witness feel as though she is stupid or lying. The process/experience of cross-examination for a victim is sometimes said to amount to re-victimization.

Crown Attorney

The prosecutor in a criminal case. Often Assistant Crowns Attorneys (lawyers working within the office of the Crown) are simply referred to as Crowns. When someone is charged with a criminal offence in Canada, it is considered an offence against the state (i.e. country), regardless of whether or not there is a named person as victim. The British monarch is the head of state in Canada, and this is what is being referred to with the word Crown. While the Crown Attorney will respect the wishes and concerns of the victim as much as possible, her/his first priority is to represent the interests of the community/state.

Custody (criminal law)

In this sense, custody refers to imprisonment. It includes the time spent serving a prison sentence, as well as pre-trial detention (a.k.a. “remand”) in a jail/detention/remand facility while awaiting court appearances.

Custody (family law)

In this sense, custody of a child refers to the legal right to make major decisions about a child, and does not necessarily refer to who that child resides with. An adult may have sole custody of a child, or custody may be shared between adults in instances of joint custody.


Defence Lawyer

Argues on the behalf of the defendant to defend the accused person against a charge.


The person who has been accused of a crime and so is in the position of defending themself in court, usually with assistance of a defence lawyer, against the allegations. (Compare with Accused, Perpetrator)


A witness being asked questions about the case before trial. The deposition has two purposes: to find out what the witness knows and to preserve that witness’ testimony. The intent is to allow the parties to learn all of the facts before the trial, so that no one is surprised once that witness is on the stand.


A sentence passed in criminal court whereby an individual is found guilty of an offence but is deemed not to have been convicted.  An absolute discharge is an unconditional discharge whereby the court finds that a crime has technically been committed but that any punishment of the defendant would be inappropriate and the case is closed. A conditional discharge is an order made by a criminal court whereby an offender will not be sentenced for an offence unless a further offence is committed within a stated period.


The release of evidence that has been submitted to the court. Disclosure can be problematic due to the sensitive, personal nature of much of the information.


: In the context of courts, a disposition is the outcome or conclusion of a charge. In other words, after having gone through the court process, an accused person disposes of their charge(s). Regardless of the type of outcome (conviction and its accompanying prison term and/or probation, acquittal, withdrawal, etc.) of the charges, that outcome is called the disposition.


Examination in chief

This is one of the ways witnesses in a trial are questioned: It is done by the lawyer on the same side as the witness. In a criminal trial, the accused and his witnesses are examined in chief by the defence lawyer and the victim and witnesses on her side by the Crown Attorney. This examination allows the witnesses to give their detailed story of what has happened.



Gladue Report

A report ordered by either defence, Crown or judge, to be delivered at a bail hearing or prior to sentencing, that details elements of an Indigenous defendant’s background, as well as sentencing recommendations. Details may include the defendant’s mental health, history of addictions and trauma, including personal or familiar experience with residential schools. Gladue Reports were intended to help address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in custody.




When a person has been convicted of a criminal offence, there are a number of possible penalties that can be imposed by the judge. Incarceration, which means the person must spend a period of time in either a provincial jail (if the period of time is less than two years) or a federal prison (if the time is two years or more) is the most severe. Frequently, individuals found guilty are punished by being placed on probation, by having to pay a fine and/or having to serve what is called a conditional sentence. This means that they are under a form of “house arrest” – they are not in jail but their movements are limited and other conditions may be placed on their activities.

Indictable offences

Charges that are considered more serious. The maximum penalties are higher. The accused has more options available to them in terms of how the case proceeds, including the right to a trial by jury.


An inquiry held by a coroner or medical examiner regarding the death of a person who died in circumstances set out in the Coroner’s Act.

Indictable offences

Charges that are considered more serious. The maximum penalties are higher. The accused has more options available to them in terms of how the case proceeds, including the right to a trial by jury.



A judge may be either federally or provincially appointed.  Judges, who must be lawyers, have the authority to hear criminal cases and decide on the outcomes – in criminal court, judges decide whether or not the accused person is guilty and what penalties are appropriate for people who are found guilty. Criminal court judges may also rule on bail, although most bail is handled by Justices of the Peace.

Justice of the Peace

A Justice of the Peace, or “JP”, is a judicial officer that presides over certain matters within the court system. They preside over most provincial and city bylaw offenses (e.g. Highway Traffic Act, parking, industrial health and safety) matters but their role in the criminal courts is limited to the bail stage. This role includes arraigning (the first, formal reading of charges against someone) the accused person at their first appearance in bail court, and deciding whether or not they can be released on bail. The JP also decides which conditions an accused person will have to abide by if released on bail. A JP has the power to order mental health assessments of an accused person if there is indication they may not be mentally fit to stand trial. Under the Child Youth and Family Services Act, a JP also has the power to issue child apprehension warrants.




Mandatory Charging

Mandatory charging is a policy in place across Canada that requires police to lay charges in domestic violence cases where the officer involved believes there is a reasonable likelihood of getting a conviction, whether or not the victim wants a charge to be laid.

Mens rea

A term derived from Latin used to encompass criminal intent. For a judge to find someone guilty of a criminal offense, there must be proof the person committed a criminal act (actus reus) AND have done so intentionally (mens rea). Negligence and recklessness can also be considered forms of criminal intent.


No contact order

This is an order of the court, either criminal or family, that prevents one person from having any contact with another. Often, this is a condition of a bail order. Other kinds of no contact orders include probation orders, peace bonds and, in family court, restraining orders.

No publication order

In some kinds of criminal trial, including any involving children or sexual assault, the judge can make an order preventing the media from printing information that could identify the victim. These orders are also known as “publication bans.”




A type of conditional release into the community from prison. It requires the person released from prison to follow specific conditions (rules) and be monitored by a parole officer. If any conditions of the release are not followed, parole is revoked and the person can be required to complete the remainder of their sentence in prison (custody). Conditions of parole may include curfew, regular reporting to a parole officer, no contact with specified people and providing regular urine samples to prove abstention from specific drugs.

PAR Program

The Partner Assault Response (PAR) Program is a 12-session course for people who have committed acts of gender-based violence. It aims to prevent further acts of abusive, controlling, violent behaviour through education and counselling. Participation in the program is often ordered by a judge when convicting someone of intimate partner violence.

Peace bond

A criminal court order made by a justice of the peace or judge. It is a signed promise to keep the peace and have good behaviour. If someone signs a peace bond, it means they promise to follow the conditions in it and not to break the law. Not following the conditions in a peace bond is a crime.


The person who has committed an offence. (Compare with Accused, Defendant)


The declaration made by a person accused of a crime as to whether he or she is guilty or not guilty of the charge.

Plea bargaining

In criminal cases, the Crown Attorney and the defence lawyer meet several times to discuss what should happen. Sometimes, the Crown Attorney will agree to reduce the charge(s) to a less serious one or to reduce the penalty if the accused person agrees to plead guilty. This process is sometimes is called plea bargaining or Crown resolution meetings.

Preliminary hearing

A hearing at court to determine if there is enough evidence, including witness testimony, for a case to proceed to trial. A victim of gender-based violence may be required to provide evidence at this pre-trial stage of the court process. At its conclusion, a judge will NOT decide guilt or innocence, but instead decide if there has been enough evidence provided for a possible conviction at trial of the accused person. If there is not enough evidence for a conviction, the charge(s) against the accused person will be dismissed. Preliminary hearings only take place for more serious offences.


A type of community supervision that judges can sentence someone to if found guilty of their charge(s). Sometimes the probation order is the only component of someone’s sentence, and other times it is in addition to a prison term. In the latter instance, the probation component of the sentence does not start until the convicted person completes their prison term. At the sentencing stage, a judge sets the length of time the person will be on probation and what the conditions of that probation order will be. Common conditions of probation include mandatory reporting to a probation officer, attending programming or counselling as directed by their probation officer and keeping the peace and being of good behaviour. Failure to follow any of the conditions can result in new criminal charges being laid for failing to comply with (i.e. breaching) the probation order.




A form of release on bail that may or may not include a surety (a person who takes responsibility for the accused person). It consists of conditions the accused person must abide by and it includes a fine the accused and/or surety would be required to pay the courts if the accused is convicted of breaching the conditions of their recognizance. The surety may be required to pay if they were found to have not fulfilled their obligations to the court. (Compare with Bail)


The process of detaining a person who has been arrested and charged with an offence until their trial. A person who is on remand is held in a prison or detention centre, or held under house arrest.

Restraining order

A protection order made by a judge in court to help protect one person from another. Restraining orders list certain conditions based on individual needs that the person named in it must follow. Restraining Orders are made in civil (family) court and there must be a family connection.



Penalties or other means of enforcement used to provide incentives for obedience with the law, or with rules and regulations. Criminal sanctions can take the form of serious punishment, such as corporal or capital punishment, incarceration, or severe fines.


An order made by the court requiring a witness to attend at a specified date and time to provide evidence. The word literally translates to “under penalty” and this is because there can be serious consequences, such as having to pay a fine or even serve a prison sentence, if someone ignores the subpoena or refuses to provide the evidence asked of them. In instances of gender-based violence, the person being assaulted is often the only witness to the violence, and so will receive a subpoena to provide evidence to the courts if criminal charges were laid against the perpetrator.

Summary offence

A summary offence is a crime that is considered less serious and for which the maximum penalties are lighter. The accused has a trial in front of a provincial court judge, with no option to have a trial by jury. Generally, if convicted, the accused can receive a fine of not more than

$2,000 and/or a jail sentence of no more than 6 months. However, if the conviction is for criminal harassment or sexual assault, the maximum penalty is 18 months in jail.


A person entrusted by the court to monitor an accused person while released on bail. A surety is responsible for ensuring the person attends all court appearances, and is required to report to police any instance of that person’s non-compliance with the conditions of their bail release. If a surety fails to do this, they may be required to pay an amount of money to the court.



A way of presenting evidence to the court using a witness. A witness testifies by answering questions asked by the lawyers and the judge. The answers the witness gives are called their testimony. The witness answers questions under oath or after giving an affirmation. With an oath or an affirmation, the witness promises to tell the truth in court.


A stage of the criminal court process at which the Crown Attorney (prosecutor) will present the evidence they have that the accused person committed the crimes they were charged with, and the defence lawyer (lawyer for the accused person) will present their arguments for why their client did not commit the crimes they are charged with, or factors that reduce the accountability of their client. Both sides in a trial may call witnesses to testify. The opposing side is allowed to cross-examine witnesses. A judge or jury will decide the accused person’s guilt or innocence at the end of the trial.



An undertaking is a piece of paper that an accused signs instead of being held for a bail hearing. Usually it will contain conditions they agree to comply with as part of their release from custody.



A person who has suffered physical or emotional harm, property damage, or economic loss as a result of a crime. Terms such as ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ are used to describe individuals who undergo experiences of violence. However, it is important to understand that legal terms can limit self-agency and identity of those who have already experienced trauma with serious consequences for their emotional, physical and sexual health and well-being.

Victim Impact Statement

This is a written statement that the victim can prepare after the accused has been found guilty. In it, they talk about the effect of what the accused has done.


In a criminal trial, the verdict is the outcome of the charge(s) before the court, decided by judge or jury. There are three possible outcomes: guilty (conviction), not guilty (acquittal) or withdrawal.



This is an order from the court that gives the police the authority to arrest someone or, in the case of a search warrant, to search a person or a place.


When a criminal charge is abandoned by the prosecutor because there remains no reasonable likelihood of conviction. Reasons for this may be lack of sufficient evidence, a request by the complainant, or even that the accused person is deceased. A withdrawn charge is not an indication of guilt or innocence. In some instances, particular charges are withdrawn when an agreement has been reached between the prosecution and defence that the accused will plead guilty to particular charges if others are withdrawn. (Compare with Conviction, Acquittal)


A witness is someone that gives a statement to police about a crime they think has occurred. A witness can also be someone who testifies during the court process to give information they have about the alleged crime or about the accused person or victim/complainant. Types of witnesses may include the victim/complainant, someone who was present at the time of the alleged crime, or expert witnesses (examples: medical doctors, including psychiatrists and coroners; forensic investigators). Both sides in a trial may call their own expert witnesses.  


This glossary provides general legal information only. It is not a legal document, nor is it a replacement for legal advice. Everyone is strongly urged to meet with a lawyer to understand fully their rights and responsibilities, the legal options available to them and appropriate legal processes. A lawyer can interpret the law and provide advice based on the personal facts and information in the specific case.

For information about finding a lawyer in your community, contact Legal Aid Ontario at 1-800-6688258. You can also visit Legal Aid Ontario online at

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