Definitions and glossary of criminal terms



Absolute discharge

A finding of guilt is made but there is no fine or penalty. An absolute discharge does not result in a criminal record.


The person who has been charged with committing an offence. This person is also referred to as the defendant.


A judgment from the court resulting from a finding of not guilty. Following an acquittal, the accused is free to go without restrictions.


A law that has been passed by the federal or provincial government. This is also referred to as a statute or legislation.

Actus reus

The action, conduct or inaction relating to the crime. This is the physical element of a criminal act. This is a necessary element of finding an accused guilty, along with mens rea.


A postponing of the court session. This could occur for many different reasons including getting more time to obtain disclosure, being able to present new information, a personal emergency or the unavailability of a witness. The presiding justice decides whether an adjournment is granted.

Admissible evidence

Evidence that may be presented for the presiding judge to consider in deciding the case. This evidence must be relevant and not barred by any specific rules or laws.


A legal document containing facts that a person swears or affirms to be true. A commissioner for affidavits must witness the person’s signature and sign the affidavit. Affidavits are sometimes used to provide evidence in court.

Alternative measures

Also called diversion, or “direct accountability”, this applies to less serious offences and is an alternative to going to trial. The Crown can offer the accused an opportunity to accept responsibility for the crime while making amends to the community through certain conditions that are set by the diversion office. This can include a formal apology, compensatory payments, agreeing to go to drug treatment court or attending personal wellness classes.


When either the Crown or the accused asks a higher court to review the decision of a lower court due to a serious error of law or fact. Depending on the type of appeal and crime, an appeal can be heard by the Superior Court of Justice, the Ontario Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada.

Appearance notice

Similar to a summons, this document compels an accused to appear in court at a specific time and place.


Sometimes referred to as a motion, this is a request to a court to decide on a matter. Examples include an application for an adjournment and an application to exclude evidence obtained as a result of a breach of the accused’s rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


This occurs at the beginning of a trial, when the court clerk reads the charge(s) and asks the accused if they plead guilty or not guilty.

Arrest warrant

A court order that gives the police the ability to arrest the person named on the order.


Bail hearing

Sometimes called a show cause hearing or judicial interim release hearing, this is a hearing where a judge or justice of the peace decides if an accused can be released from custody while awaiting their trial or appeal.


A court order, referred to as a “release order”, releasing the accused from custody while they are awaiting trial or appeal, and requiring them to obey certain conditions while in the community. In some cases, bail orders may require a money deposit or a bail surety.

Bench warrant

A type of arrest warrant issued by a judge or justice of the peace authorizing the police to arrest a person who has failed to appear for criminal court.

Bench warrant with discretion

A type of bench warrant that the police cannot execute before a specific date, meaning that the police are not authorized to arrest the person before that date. The person’s court matter may also be adjourned to that date, to allow an accused person a chance to appear in court. If the person appears before the court at that time, the warrant is cancelled. This type of arrest warrant is also referred to as a Discretionary bench warrant.

Beyond a reasonable doubt

The legal standard of proof required to support a finding of guilt. In a criminal case, the Crown must prove all the elements of the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. Proving something beyond a reasonable doubt is much closer to absolute certainty than being able to prove something on a balance of probabilities.

Burden of proof

The party who must prove something in a criminal case has the burden of proof. In a criminal trial, the Crown has the burden of proving that the accused committed the essential elements of the offence.


Case law

Previous court decisions used to assist with the party’s arguments. Case law from the same level of court or other jurisdictions may be persuasive, but the court does not have to follow it. Case law from a higher appeal court is binding on the lower court.


The specific criminal offence(s) a person is accused of committing.

Closing arguments

The submissions made at the end of a trial, by the Crown and by the accused, that summarize the party’s main points and suggest what decision the court should make. If the accused has a lawyer, the lawyer will make these arguments.


After a preliminary inquiry, the judge will issue a committal if they believe there is evidence upon which a reasonable jury could return a verdict of guilty. This means the accused will be ordered to stand trial.


Often referred to as the victim, this is a person who is alleged to have been harmed as a result of the accused’s alleged criminal conduct.

Conditional discharge

A type of sentence that involves a finding of guilt and the imposition of a probation order but is not considered a “conviction”. The probation order includes conditions and can remain in effect for up to three years.

Court docket

A list of all the cases that will be addressed in a specific courtroom on a specific date.

Court order

A legally binding direction, issued by a justice, which orders a party to do something. There are serious legal consequences for disobeying a court order.

Court reporter

A person in the courtroom who creates official records of things said during court proceedings.

Criminal record

A list of a person’s record of convictions in the criminal justice system. Criminal records are kept in central systems which most police agencies across Canada can access. If you would like a conviction to not appear on your criminal record, you can apply for a record suspension with the Parole Board of Canada.


To ask questions to the other party’s witnesses after they’ve given evidence in order to point out weak spots in their testimony, test their truthfulness or reliability, or bring up evidence that may support the cross-examiner's position. Unlike in direct examination, a party can ask leading questions to suggest a certain narrative to the witness.

Crown counsel

The lawyer that represents the state in prosecuting criminal matters. Sometimes referred to as the Prosecution or the Crown, they act on behalf of the public. They do not represent the police, or specific victims or their families.


Defence counsel

The lawyer that represents the accused throughout the criminal proceedings.


See Accused.

Detention order

A type of court order that can be made at a bail hearing. When a detention order is issued by a judge or justice of the peace, the accused is denied bail and will remain in custody until the conclusion of the trial, or until they are released following a bail review.

Direct examination

Often referred to as an examination-in-chief, this is the questioning of a party’s own witness. The questions during a direct examination must be open-ended and non-leading.

Discretionary bench warrant

See Bench warrant with discretion


The documents and evidence relevant to a criminal case and often used during trial. This can include a synopsis of the Crown’s case, Crown witness statements, copies other statements made to the police, police notes, the Information, forensic reports, photographs and video recordings.

Duty counsel

Defence lawyers who work at criminal courthouses to help unrepresented parties. They provide basic legal advice and can help people at bail hearings, case management court, and sometimes at plea court. Duty counsel provide free legal advice for a specific court appearance but do not take on an entire case.



When an accused person is charged with a hybrid offence, the Crown’s election refers to the Crown’s right to choose whether to “proceed summarily” and prosecute the charge as a summary conviction offence or to “proceed by indictment” and prosecute the charge as an indictable offence. The Crown will make this decision based on the seriousness of the offence, the accused person’s previous criminal history and other factors. The Crown’s decision will affect the type of sentence that may be imposed upon a finding of guilt and will also affect whether the accused person has an election The accused’s election refers to an accused person’s right to choose whether they wish to have their case tried by a judge or jury. This right only exists in relation to certain indictable offences. Once an election is made, it may not be able to be changed without the consent of the Crown.

Essential elements of an offence

Each offence may be broken down into certain elements. In order to find someone guilty, the Crown must prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt. These essential elements include the actus reus and the mens rea.


A statement or object that provides information about the crime and is presented in court using witnesses, documents, audio or video recordings, and photographs.


A document or object admitted as evidence during court proceedings and labelled with numbers, for example, Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2.

Expert witness

A witness who testifies about technical and scientific issues as they relate to the case. They give opinions in areas that will help the judge understand and decide the case. The expert witness must have the requisite skill and qualifications in their area of expertise. Their evidence can be given through testimony, or through a written expert report.


First appearance

An accused person’s first court date in a case, other than a bail hearing. First appearances are usually in case management court, before a justice of the peace.



A finding made by a justice following a guilty plea or after a trial in which all the essential elements of the offence have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.



A proceeding before a judge or justice of the peace to discuss certain parts of a criminal case. This includes bail hearings, case management hearings, judicial pre-trials, preliminary inquiries and trials.


The report of another person’s words by a testifying witness. Hearsay is typically inadmissible but there are certain legal exceptions where it can be allowed by the judge.

Hybrid offence

An offence that can proceed as an indictable offence or a summary conviction offence. The Crown will be able to make this decision based on the seriousness of the act, previous criminal history and other factors. The Crown’s decision (referred to as the “Crown’s election”) will affect whether the accused has an election and will also affect the type of sentence that may be imposed upon a finding of guilt.


Indictable offence

A category of criminal offence that is usually more serious and carries a greater maximum sentence than summary conviction offences. This type of offence is often heard in the Superior Court of Justice, in front of a judge or jury. It can also be heard in the Ontario Court of Justice, depending on the accused’s election.


The official court document that states the name of the accused, the charge, and the date and place where the offence is alleged to have occurred.

Innocent until proven guilty

A very important legal presumption that requires that the accused be considered innocent until the judge decides that the evidence proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they committed the offence charged.

Intermittent sentence

A type of sentence that allows an offender to serve their jail sentence in scheduled intervals, often on weekends.



A judge is an impartial judicial officer who presides over criminal proceedings in the Ontario Court of Justice. Judges should be addressed as “Your Honour”.

Judicial interim release

See Bail.


The official power to make legal decisions and judgments within a certain geographic area or within a certain area of law.

Justice of the peace

A justice of the peace is an impartial judicial officer whose responsibilities in criminal matters in the Ontario Court of Justice include presiding in bail court and case management court. Justices of the peace should be addressed as “Your Worship”.


Leading question

A question that prompts or encourages a desired answer. This type of question is allowed during the cross-examination of a witness but not during direct examination.

Leave of the court

Obtaining the court’s permission to proceed in a certain way. This is often mentioned during motions, appeals or certain applications.

Legal advice

Professional advice provided by a lawyer about the law as it applies to a particular case.

Legal Aid

Free legal information, advice and representation for those who cannot afford a lawyer and who qualify for a legal aid certificate. Obtaining a lawyer through Legal Aid is based on financial need and the type of assistance required.


Material facts

Facts that are important to the case.

Mens rea

The intent to commit a criminal act or knowledge that one’s action would cause a crime to be committed. This is the mental element of an offence. The mens rea, or guilty mind, must co-exist with the actus reus, the physical element of the criminal act.


See Application.


Not guilty

A type of plea made by an accused or a verdict made by a trial judge. If an accused is found not guilty, this means the Crown failed to prove the accused’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the accused must be acquitted.



A statement made by a party during a hearing or trial, which voices the party’s opposition to an aspect of a legal proceeding. An objection could point out that the other party inappropriately asked leading questions or asked irrelevant questions. An objection could also point out that a witness has given inadmissible hearsay or opinion evidence. After hearing the objection, the judge either overturns the objection (meaning the objection fails) or sustains the objection (meaning the objection succeeds).


A state-recognized crime or violation of a statute (a law passed by the federal parliament or a provincial / territorial legislature) that results in a penalty.


Refers to the party that has the duty or responsibility to prove something.

Open questions

Questions that allow for explanations during a direct examination. They typically begin with “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why”, “how”, “tell me about” or “describe”.


Peace bond

An order made by a justice of the peace or judge that requires a person to abide by specific conditions, including “keep the peace and be of good behaviour”. It often also includes conditions to have no contact with named persons, remain a certain distance from those persons’ residences and places of work, and possess no firearms, ammunition and other weapons. Disobeying the conditions of a peace bond could lead to a criminal charge.


A legal statement made by the accused when asked if they plead guilty or not guilty to the charges before the court.


A principle or rule established in a previous legal case that can be used to persuade or legally bind the judge deciding the current case before the court.

Preliminary inquiry/preliminary hearing

A court proceeding that is held before a trial to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a trial.

Privileged document

A document that is created during confidential discussions between a client and their lawyer.

Publication ban

A court order preventing the public from publishing, broadcasting, or sending any information about the matter described in the publication ban. Often, this relates to specific information that could identify a victim or witness.


The legal proceedings that are pursued against a person who is charged with a criminal offence.



New questions asked by the party who called the witness after cross-examination has occurred. These are questions about new facts raised during the cross-examination.

Release order

See Bail

Reverse onus

An exceptional situation in a court proceeding, where the responsibility to prove or disprove something (the onus) shifts to the accused. This can arise, for example, during certain bail hearings.

Rowbotham application

An application made to the court when the accused is facing serious and complex criminal charges but cannot afford a lawyer and has been denied legal aid. The judge will assess the accused’s financial situation, and the complexity of the case. If the application is successful, a state-funded lawyer will be assigned to represent the accused.


Search warrant

A court order authorizing law enforcement to conduct a search of a person’s property, a location or a vehicle for evidence of a crime.


The penalty or punishment made by the court after an accused has been found guilty of an offence. This could include imprisonment, a monetary fine, probation, or other sentences.

Show cause hearing

See Bail hearing.


See Act.

Stay of proceedings

A suspension of the criminal case until further notice. If a stay is issued by the Crown, the prosecution process is suspended. If the Crown fails to recommence the process, the charges are dismissed. If a stay is issued by the Court, it means the case is suspended until further notice.


A court document ordering a witness to attend court to give evidence and to bring relevant documents. Failure to comply with a subpoena can lead to arrest

Summary conviction offence

A less serious criminal offence with a maximum penalty of a fine of not more than $5,000 and/or a term of imprisonment of not more than two years less a day.


A notice instructing an accused person they must appear in court at a specific time and place.

Superior Court of Justice

A court where more serious criminal charges and certain appeals are heard. If an accused chooses to have trial with a jury, the case will be heard in the Superior Court of Justice.


A person who supervises an accused who has been released on bail. A surety is responsible for ensuring that the accused attends court and obeys all bail conditions as they wait for their trial. A surety will promise a certain amount of money to the court if the accused fails to obey one of their bail conditions or does not show up to court as required.



To give evidence as a witness in court while under oath or affirmation.


A court proceeding to determine if an accused person is guilty of a specific criminal charge. The Crown will present its evidence against the accused while the accused may present evidence in their defence. The judge will determine if, based on the facts and law, the accused person is guilty or not guilty of the offence.


Undertaking to a police officer

Issued by the police, this document compels an accused person to appear in court at a specific time and place, and may contain other conditions.



The decision of the judge or jury about whether an accused committed the offence(s) with which they were charged. The verdict can be either “guilty” or “not guilty”.


A person who is harmed, injured or suffered economic loss as a result of a crime. This may also include a person who has suffered harm or loss as a result of the commission of an offence against another person.

Victim (or community) impact statement

A statement, presented in writing or read out in court by the victim during sentencing proceedings. It explains the harm that the victim or the community suffered as a result of the offence.

Voir dire

A hearing, held before or during a trial, to determine legal issues. A voir dire may be held to determine if an expert witness’ testimony will be allowed or if statements an accused made to police are admissible as evidence.



A person who gives evidence during a court proceeding to help the judge decide on a case. This can be done orally under oath or affirmation, or by affidavit. A witness may volunteer to testify or be required to testify upon receiving a subpoena.


Young person

A person 12 years old or older, and under 18 years old. If a young person is charged with an offence, the case is governed by the  Youth Criminal Justice Act and the Criminal Code. The Youth Criminal Justice Act imposes special considerations and procedures that take into account the age of the young person.

Ontario Court of Justice