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Information for Self-Represented Accused Persons with Criminal Cases in the Ontario Court of Justice

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Published: August 19, 2020

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of the Attorney General, which is responsible for courts administration and courthouse facilities, has established an incremental plan to prepare courthouses and courtrooms to facilitate the return to full court operations across Ontario.  The first phase of the plan (Phase One) was implemented Monday July 6, 2020, in a limited number of courthouses and courtrooms.  Court operations will continue to expand as the Ministry continues to implement its plan across the province, with a targeted completion date of November 1, 2020.

As part of the return to operations plan, the Ministry is implementing health and safety measures in each courthouse. The number of people who may enter courthouses has been limited in order to help curb the spread of the virus.

As the Province safely and gradually reopens, in-person hearings are starting to resume in those courthouses where the Ministry of the Attorney General has put in place health and safety measures to protect people from COVID-19.  Courts will continue to conduct many types of court proceedings using telephone or videoconference technology.

This document provides general information to self-represented accused persons who have criminal cases in the OCJ during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not a complete review of the criminal process and does not cover every circumstance that might arise in your case.

The following are general answers to some common questions that you may have. For more specific information that may impact your case, seek legal advice. You should also review the COVID-19 notices posted on the OCJ website which are updated often.

General Information for Self-Represented Accused Persons

1.    I don’t have access to the internet. Are there other ways to obtain information about how my court case will be dealt with during the pandemic without coming to the courthouse?

If you do not have access to the internet and are unable to get help to access the information on the OCJ website, you can call the local courthouse and speak with a court services representative.

Your release document will tell you the courthouse where your case is being dealt with.

You may also contact Legal Aid Ontario at 1-800-668-8258 or at 416-979-1446 or on the web at https://www.legalaid.on.ca/ for assistance.

2.    The date for my criminal trial or my preliminary inquiry is in or after July 2020. Should I come to the courthouse on the date set for the hearing?

Starting on July 6, 2020, the OCJ began hearing criminal trials and preliminary inquiries in a limited number of courthouses in Ontario.

Your trial or preliminary inquiry may or may not be going ahead, depending on the courthouse where your case is scheduled.

Please contact your local courthouse to determine if your trial or preliminary inquiry is going ahead and whether you should attend at the courthouse on your scheduled date. The following public notice indicates which courthouses are currently hearing trials and preliminary hearings. This information changes regularly and you should check back for up to date information.

3.    I had a scheduled case management court appearance between March 16 and July 31, 2020.  What happened to my case?  

A case management court appearance includes a “first appearance”, matters scheduled “to be spoken to”, or to “set a date.” They do not include scheduled trials or preliminary hearings. If your court appearance was scheduled sometime between March 16 and July 31, 2020, your case was automatically adjourned for 10 weeks without you having to come to court. When your case is automatically re-scheduled or adjourned, the court will issue an order known as a “bench warrant with discretion”.

4.    My next court date will be after August 24, 2020. Should I come to the courthouse?

If you have a scheduled case management court appearance on or after August 24, 2020, you should not attend at the courthouse. On August 10 some of these courts re-opened to the public using remote technology. Commencing August 24, more will follow. Details will be provided on the Court’s website. You should check the website for updated information or call your local courthouse to determine whether you should attend in person.

If a case management court has not yet resumed at your local courthouse, the court will automatically re-schedule, or “adjourn”, your case for 5 weeks. The court will issue an order called a “bench warrant with discretion”.  This order states that you must appear in court at another date that is approximately 5 weeks later.

5.    If my case was automatically adjourned, how do I find out when my next court date is?

To find the date when you should next attend court, you can check the information provided on the Ontario Court of Justice’s website or call the local courthouse.

6.    How can I get information about hiring a lawyer or paralegal to assist me?

The information in this notice is not legal advice and does not replace the advice of a legal professional. The Guide for Accused Persons in Criminal Trials on the OCJ website explains how you can retain a lawyer or paralegal.

If you do not have access to the internet, you can obtain information by calling the following services. Both offer limited legal advice for free:

If you qualify for legal aid, LAO will issue you a legal aid certificate that you can use to hire a lawyer.

7.    I need an interpreter. How can I get one?

If you need an interpreter, you can contact a court services representative in the courthouse where your case is being heard. More information can be found online at https://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/courts/interpreters/.

8.    I have a disability and will have trouble attending the courthouse. What should I do?

If you have questions about a courthouse’s accessibility features, you can contact the Accessibility Coordinator at the courthouse where your matter is being heard. Additional information can be found online at https://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/about/commitment_to_accessibility.php.

9.    I am a young person and do not have a lawyer to assist me. Where can I get help?

The Youth Criminal Justice Act provides young persons (12-17 years old) with special rights and protections. Young persons or their parents or guardians should apply to Legal Aid Ontario for a legal aid certificate that they can use to hire a lawyer. If a young person wants to hire a lawyer to represent them, but has been denied a legal aid certificate, they can appeal the decision or ask to have their matter brought before a judge to explain why they cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The judge may order a referral to Legal Aid for the appointment of counsel.

Young persons or their parents or guardians may wish to contact Justice For Children and Youth (JFCY), which is a legal clinic that gives free legal advice to any young person in Ontario. JFCY also can help to connect a young person facing criminal charges with a lawyer in their community. You can call JFCY at 416-920-1633 or toll free at 1-866-999-5329.

Moving My Case Forward

10. What is disclosure and how can I get disclosure?

A person accused of committing a crime is entitled by law to receive a copy of the evidence that the Crown possesses or controls that is not clearly irrelevant or privileged. This could include: police notes, witness statements, diagrams, and photographs. This information is called “disclosure”.  The prosecutor (also known as a Crown Attorney or an Assistant Crown Attorney) will provide you with your disclosure in court, often at a first court appearance after your release. If your court appearance was automatically adjourned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and you did not receive disclosure, do not come to the courthouse to get it. You should contact the Crown Attorney’s office that is prosecuting your case to ask them how to get your disclosure. If you lost your original disclosure and need a new copy or if you think that you should be getting additional disclosure, contact the Crown Attorney’s office.

When you contact the Crown Attorney’s office, be prepared to provide:

  • your full name
  • your date of birth
  • a list of your charges
  • the police occurrence number (found on your release papers)
  • your email address, telephone number; and mailing address

Please also advise whether you have a secure email address where you can receive disclosure.

This information is required so the Crown can provide you with disclosure on an ongoing basis.

In some cases, you may also be asked to provide identification or other information confirming your identity, because the Crown must ensure that disclosure is released to the correct person.

For more information about how criminal cases in the OCJ are conducted, please refer to The Guide for Accused Persons in Criminal Trials on the OCJ website.

11. I would like to speak with the prosecutor about my case. How can I do this without attending the courthouse?

You may be able to schedule a telephone meeting with a Crown Attorney (or prosecutor) to discuss your case. This is often referred to as a “Crown pre-trial”. Please contact the Crown Attorney’s office that is prosecuting your case to determine if you are able to have a Crown pre-trial without a legal representative.

12. I have already spoken with the prosecutor and would like to speak with a judge about my case. Can I do this?

If your case was scheduled for a trial or a preliminary inquiry between March 16 and July 3, 2020 and was automatically adjourned due to the COVID-19 pandemic, your matter may require a court appearance with a judge and a Crown Attorney, referred to as a “Judicial pre-trial” or JPT. The judge and the Crown Attorney will be at this hearing. A JPT is not a trial and no witnesses will testify at a JPT. A JPT may be done through a telephone conference call or through a videoconference.

Once the case management court in your jurisdiction re-opens to the public, you will be able to set a JPT in accordance with local practices when you appear in court.  Your court appearance might be in person or by remote technology. Details will be provided on the Court’s website. You should check there for updated information or call your local courthouse.

To find out more information, please contact your local courthouse.

13. How can I plead guilty to the charges against me?

Before you decide to plead guilty, you are strongly encouraged to obtain legal advice. If you were scheduled to appear at a courthouse to enter a guilty plea between March 16 and July 3, 2020 and your appearance was adjourned due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you will need to get a new court date to enter a guilty plea.  A legal professional may be able to assist you in getting a new court date.

If you do not have access to a legal professional, you can contact the Crown Attorney’s office to set a date for pleading guilty by providing the following information:

  • your full name
  • your date of birth
  • a list of your charges
  • the police occurrence number (found on your release papers)
  • your next court date
  • the date you would like to plead guilty

After July 6, 2020 if you want to plead guilty to your charge(s) and you are not in custody, the hearing will be done by way of a videoconference hearing rather than in person.  You should try to get legal advice to see if you will be permitted to plead guilty by way of a videoconference hearing.

14. I would like to set a trial date as soon as possible. When will I be able to set a trial date?

If your trial date was originally set between March 16, 2020 and July 3, 2020, it was adjourned due to COVID. The court has posted a notice about setting trial dates. It is anticipated that in August you will be able to reschedule these matters for a future trial date. Please check the court’s website regularly for more information.

If you would like to schedule a trial date for a case that has never had a trial date set, information will be posted soon on the court’s website about that process.

You are encouraged to obtain legal advice from a legal representative who will be able to tell you about local directions involving court scheduling. Updated information will be posted on the OCJ website and should be consulted frequently.

15. Am I able to enter a courthouse to file court documents?

If you have materials that you would like to serve and file with the court, this can be done electronically by email.  Information on how to submit documents by email may be found on the OCJ website. If you are unable to file documents by email, contact your local courthouse by telephone to find out about the options that are available to you.

16. How can I apply to change the conditions of my release (e.g., of a bail/ release order or a police undertaking)?

If you are concerned about your bail/release conditions or the conditions in an undertaking to the police, you can fill out an Application for Consent Variation Bail Form and send it to the Crown Attorney’s office by email. Before you try to change the terms of your release, you are encouraged to obtain legal advice or contact Legal Aid for assistance.

If the Crown Attorney’s office agrees to the proposed change(s), the OCJ has implemented a procedure so that you will not need to attend the courthouse in person. Information about this procedure can be found on the OCJ website: COVID-19: Ontario Court of Justice Consent Variation Procedures for Release Orders and Police Undertakings.

If you have been released on a bail order with any sureties, any sureties must also consent to the proposed change(s) and they must complete Part B of the Application for Consent Variation Bail Form. Part C of the Form is completed by a lawyer if you have one.

You will receive a decision by email. A bail variation form must include the Crown Attorney’s consent and the authorization of a judicial official, in writing, to take effect. If your request to vary your release order is granted, a copy will be sent to you by email.  Keep it with the original release order.

If the Crown Attorney does not consent to your proposed variation(s), you may bring an application called a “bail review” asking a judge of the Superior Court of Justice to change your bail conditions. You are encouraged to seek legal advice and contact your courthouse to determine when the application can be scheduled.

17. I don’t have a scheduled court appearance, but I would like to act as a surety and may have to testify at a bail hearing for a person who is in custody. Am I expected to come to the courthouse to testify?

Most bail hearings are being conducted by telephone and/or videoconference during the pandemic. A person who is prepared to act as a surety should contact the lawyer representing the accused person, or duty counsel who is assisting the accused person. The lawyer or duty counsel will provide you with information about joining the hearing by telephone or videoconference. You should ask the accused person for the name and contact information of their lawyer, if they have a lawyer.

18. I am not in custody but I urgently require the court to consider my case. What can I do to bring my case to the court’s attention?

If you have an urgent criminal matter, please speak with your lawyer.  If you do not have a lawyer, please contact Legal Aid Ontario at 1-800-668-8258 for assistance in submitting a request to have your matter brought before the Court. Requests to bring a matter forward must be approved by a judge.  If you do not have access to a legal professional, you can contact the Crown Attorney’s office to set a date to speak to the court by providing the following information:

  • your full name
  • your date of birth
  • a list of your charges
  • the police occurrence number (found on your release papers)
  • your next court date
  • the date you would like to speak to the court
  • the reason your case requires urgent attention

19. I have read that some court proceedings will be offered by telephone and/or video. Can my case be heard this way even if I don’t own a telephone or a computer?

The court is committed to ensuring access to justice and fairness for all litigants. If you do not have a phone or a computer, your case will be heard in a courtroom when it is safe to do so.

If you want to have your trial go ahead during the pandemic and want to appear using a phone or a computer or other device rather than by coming to the courthouse, you can ask at a Crown pre-trial or at a judicial pre-trial about how this can be done. Please contact the Crown Attorney’s office that is prosecuting your case to determine if you are able to have a Crown pre-trial without a legal representative. You are encouraged to get legal advice before you agree to attend your trial using a phone, computer or other device rather than by appearing in person at the courthouse.

Health and Safety

20. What steps are being take health and safety if I need to attend a courthouse?

The Ministry of the Attorney General implemented health and safety measures at each courthouse. Information about the strict health and safety measures that are in place may be found online at https://www.ontario.ca/page/covid-19-reopening-courtrooms. You are encouraged to review the information prepared by the Ministry which explains all of the measures that are in place to protect your health and safety. These measures include:

  • enhanced cleaning
  • hand sanitizer stations
  • plexiglass barriers
  • markers that will promote physical distancing by having people to stay two metres apart from each other

You will need to answer screening questions before you enter an Ontario courthouse. Based on your answers, you will be told whether or not you can enter. If you cannot enter, you will be told what to do next. You can complete the online screening before going to court. You must show the result as you enter. The online screening tool may be found at https://covid-19.ontario.ca/courthouse-screening. If you cannot complete the screening online, other screening options are available at the courthouse.

Face coverings are mandatory for everyone who is in a courthouse. If you do not have a face covering with you, you will be given one to put on before entering the courthouse. Persons with a valid medical reason for not wearing a face covering will not be required to wear one.

21. What do I do if I don’t feel well or if I am sick on a date of a scheduled court appearance?  

If you are experiencing signs or symptoms of COVID-19 or have been advised by a public health official, a physician or by the Ontario Ministry of Health website to self-isolate, it is important that you do not attend at the courthouse even if you have a scheduled court appearance. Please contact the courthouse by email or telephone to let the court staff know if you have been advised by a public health official, a physician or by the Ontario Ministry of Health website to self-isolate.

22. I am not sick but feel very nervous about attending a public courthouse during the pandemic. What do I do?

You are expected to attend any scheduling court hearings unless arrangements have been made to have you appear by telephone or video conference. See question 19 for details on requesting to appear by telephone or video conference.

As noted above, the Ministry of the Attorney General has made a commitment to put strict measures in place to protect everyone in a courthouse.

23. Will I be able to bring witnesses, family and friends to the courthouse?

There are limits on the number of people who may be admitted to the courthouse to ensure that people can practice physical distancing and remain 2 meters or 6 feet apart.

If a person is required to attend as a witness in a case, they will be subject to the same screening requirements described above in question 20 before being admitted.

Everyone who attends at the courthouse will be required to wear face coverings while inside the courthouse.

Please allow extra time to arrive in advance of a hearing. You should expect delays in entering the courthouse in order to conduct the necessary COVID-19 screening measures.

24. Will I be able to bring documents and other materials that I want to file?

If you bring documents with you, remember that you may be asked to show court staff your belongings, deposit them in a bin for screening or place them on an examination table.  You should wash or sanitize your hands before and after sharing any documents. Hand sanitizer will be available at the courthouse.

You may bring documents with you, but you can also file documents for your case by email at the Ontario Court of Justice. If you have trouble submitting documents by email, please ask court staff at the courthouse who can assist you with this process.

Note: The above information is meant to assist self-represented litigants with common questions during the courts’ re-opening and does not replace legal advice. Please contact a lawyer or paralegal or the courthouse to obtain case specific information about the circumstances of your case. If you are a self-represented litigant with a family law or provincial offences matter, please visit the OCJ website for specific resources that might apply to your case as this information is meant to assist self-represented litigants with criminal cases before the Ontario Court of Justice.