Going to Court
- You might have to go to court for a number of reasons – don’t ignore an official court document.
- Lawyers can help you if you are going to court.
- If you have to testify, tell the truth – it is a crime to lie under oath.
You might go to court for different reasons. For example:
- you are suing someone in a civil case or you have been sued by someone
- you are fighting a traffic ticket or a bylaw offence, such as a parking ticket
- you are separating from your spouse and are asking the court to decide on parenting support or property division and/or you want a divorce
- Social Services is saying that your child needs to be removed from your home because of abuse or neglect
- you are interested in watching the case being heard
- OR -
- you have been charged with a crime and the court is deciding whether to release you before your trial
- you have been charged with a crime and want to have a trial
- you have been charged with a crime and you want to admit to the crime
- you are a victim of a crime or a witness and you have been asked to tell the court what happened
If you are going to court over a large amount of money or are being charged with a criminal offence, it is important to talk about the matter with a lawyer. A lawyer can help you understand the process and protect your rights.
If you are going to court over a smaller amount of money, you may be able to go to Small Claims Court. Small Claims Court is set up to make it easier for people who want to sue someone and do not have a lawyer.
If you are given a paper that says you must go to court, it is very important to attend court. If you are accused of a crime, you can be charged with another crime for not coming to court. If you are being called as a witness you could receive jail time or a fine for not coming to court.
If you receive court papers that say a claim is being made against you, it is important that you follow the instructions and go to court on the date stated. If you don’t, the matter could be decided without hearing your side.
If you are unable to go to court on the date and time listed on the paper, you must contact the court well ahead of time to find out if there are any other options.
How to act in court
- arrive early – you will need time to go through security and find the right courtroom
- you may be searched for security purposes and there may be a metal detector
- do not bring things like knives that may be considered weapons
- let the court clerk know you are there
- be quiet
- do not eat, drink or chew gum
- remove your hat, unless you wear it for religious reasons
- turn off cell phones and all electronic devices
- don’t take pictures
- when the judge arrives the clerk will announce it and tell everyone to stand while the judge enters
- if you are in Provincial Court, call the judge “Your Honour”
- If you are in the Court of King’s Bench, call the judge “My Lord” or “My Lady”
- stand up if you are talking to the judge and speak loudly enough to be heard clearly
- Do not talk to other people in the courtroom while the judge is in the courtroom
- do not interrupt the other party, a lawyer or the judge
- do not argue with the judge
- do not use swear words or slang
Being a Witness
If you see a crime or have information that could help someone in their court case you may be called as a witness. If you are called as a witness you will probably receive a subpoena. A subpoena is an order of the court that says you must appear in court and give evidence. A subpoena is a piece of paper that must be handed to you personally. It cannot be sent in the mail. Read the subpoena carefully and obey the directions on it.
You must appear in court to testify at the time and date stated in the subpoena. You must come to court even if you are supposed to be at work. If you do not come to court you may be arrested. If you come to court but refuse to testify you could receive a fine, or jail time, or both. If you are worried that what you say as a witness could get you into trouble with the law tell the judge this before you answer. You will still have to answer but your answer will not be used against you in another court case.
If you must travel to be a witness in a criminal case the Crown Prosecutor's office may cover some of your costs. If it is not a criminal case, you will be paid a fixed amount for travel.
You may have questions about being a witness. You may be unsure about understanding and answering questions. You may be worried about not remembering important dates, times or other details. These concerns are normal. You can ask to meet with the Crown Prosecutor or the lawyer who has called you as a witness before you testify. In a criminal case, where you have been called as a witness by the Crown Prosecutor, the defence lawyer may ask to meet with you, but you do not have to do this if you do not want to.
When you get to court you must wait outside the courtroom until it is your turn to testify. Sometimes there are private waiting rooms for children and other vulnerable witnesses. One of the court staff will call your name when it is your turn to testify.
Before testifying, adult witnesses must swear or solemnly affirm to tell the truth. Witnesses younger than 14 may testify after they have promised to tell the truth.
Although one side has asked you to come to court to give evidence, the lawyers for both sides will take turns asking you questions. The judge may also ask you questions to ensure they understand.
It is a crime for a person to bother a witness or try to influence a witness's testimony. If this happens to you, tell the police or Crown Prosecutor right away.
Support for Witnesses
Being a witness in court can be stressful. It may be especially hard if you have been the victim of a crime. There is help available. If it is a criminal case you can talk to Victim Services or the Crown Prosecutor about your concerns. If it is not a criminal case you can talk to the lawyer who called you as a witness or to the judge.
If you have trouble understanding English you can get a translator. If you have trouble speaking or hearing, special services may be provided. Sometimes the judge will allow you to have a support person of your choice near you while you are testifying. In some situations you may be able to testify outside of the courtroom by video or behind a screen so that you do not need to see the accused.
When You Are On the Witness Stand
- Tell the truth – It is a crime to knowingly lie when you are testifying.
- Take as much time as you need to answer any questions.
- If you do not understand a question ask the lawyer to explain it.
- If you do not remember or you do not know the answer to a question, say so.
- Tell what you know – not things you heard about from someone else.
- Include facts, not opinions – provide information about what has happened not about what you think or how you feel about what happened.
- Be precise and use names and exact dates.
- Use simple language and short sentences – organize the facts so that your story is easy to understand.
- Keep it as short as you can – include all the relevant information without repeating.
Court hearings are open to the public. It is a principle of the Canadian justice system that people can see and hear what happens in court. Although people can be in the courtroom, nobody in the courtroom is allowed to record anything or use phones or computers to send text messages or tweets to people outside the court while court is going on. The only people who can do so are members of the media, who are allowed to for the purposes of informing their readers or viewers.
Very rarely, in a criminal case, the judge may order that the public be kept out of the courtroom. This might be done to protect a child witness. The judge also considers the privacy of a victim.
Even if people are in the courtroom to watch, the judge can order that nobody reveal the identity of victims and witnesses publicly. Victims can ask that their identity be protected.