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Criminal

Pleading guilty in Ontario

By Christopher Hicks

People accused of crimes in Canada are afforded the right to a trial, the right to compel the attendance of witnesses, and the right to have the case against them proven beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the criminal justice system, as it exists today, depends on most people not exercising these valuable rights. To function, the system depends on guilty pleas, not trials. If the majority of people accused of crimes insisted on trials, the courts would come to a grinding halt.

Factors that may motivate someone to plead guilty

There are two major factors that seduce defendants to plead guilty instead of going to trial: lesser punishment and pretrial restrictions on liberty. Those denied bail, knowing that they can be released if they plead guilty, often plead to get out of jail. This problem is especially acute for those facing short sentences upon a conviction: getting disclosure and having a trial in less than six months is almost unheard of in the GTA.

Those who make bail, only to be subject to serve restrictions on liberty like house arrest, often plead guilty to regain control over their lives. Since courts prioritize earlier trial dates for those in custody, people on restrictive bail condition often have their cases drag on and on.

Relevant Supreme Court decisions

The Supreme Court of Canada has issued two recent decisions that might reduce this unjust pressure for some accused of crimes. R. v. Jordan has set timelines for the resolution of cases. (See a discussion of Jordan here.) Another decision has criticized the overuse of pretrial detention and restrictive releases for those accused of crime. (See a discussion of that case here.)

Unfortunately, the timeline for trials in Jordan will do little to help most defendants. The shortest timeline provided in Jordan is trial within 18 months, well longer than what the sentence would be, upon a guilty plea, for the majority of those accused of crimes.

Curing the culture of complacency that Jordan identifies would produce disclosure for the majority of cases within a week of arrest. In most cases, there is no investigation beyond an interview with the complainant and an interrogation of the accused. There is no good reason for these cases to take 6 months to go to trial.

The glacial pace of prosecutions, coupled with the risk-averse culture of the bail courts, should not pressure defendants into pleading guilty. We will know if the two decisions are successful in reforming lengthy delays and needless restrictions on liberty before trial if the number of guilty pleas declines.

Read More at Toronto Criminal Law Blog

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