The purpose of a court case is to shed light on a disagreement or a crime, and to make sure people respect the law. At the end of the case, the judge makes a decision and sometimes orders financial compensation or a punishment.
Two Main Types of Cases: Civil and Criminal
In the Quebec legal system, a person can be brought to court in a civil case or a criminal case. The differences between these two kinds of cases include the objectives, the deadlines for taking legal action and the level of evidence needed to convince the judge.
In these cases, a person or company asks a judge to settle a civil problem, such as
a problem concerning an inheritance,
a problem involving a contract, or
a family problem, such as divorce or custody of children.
A person can also ask a judge for compensation for damage suffered because of someone else's fault. This type of case is called a "civil responsibility" case. For example, if someone sues a plumber for poor repair work that caused a flood in her kitchen, the judge can order the plumber to pay money to compensate her for the water damage.
Civil cases deal with a wide range of topics, and many different rules apply to them. The "Civil Cases" column in the table below provides information on "civil responsibility" cases only.
The reason these cases come to court is always the same: a person is taken to court because she is accused of a crime. The judge, and sometimes a jury, must consider the evidence presented during a trial to decide whether the accused is guilty or innocent.
Most crimes and their punishments are described in the Criminal Code of Canada.
Some crimes involve other people, including
sexual assault, and
Other crimes have to do with objects, such as drug possession and making fake money.
The principle is always the same: A sues B for causing damage to A or to something belonging to A.
How does a person cause damage? A person causes damage, for example, by breaking a contract, by breaking an object belonging to someone, or by hurting someone.
The principle is always the same: a person is accused of a crime (e.g., murder, assault, identity theft).
A crime can occur even if there is no "immediate" victim (e.g., the crime of drug possession).
In Canada, people are considered innocent until the evidence proves they are guilty.
The person who takes the legal action pays for the expense of taking the case (for example, lawyer fees).
The person sued pays for his own expenses (for example, lawyer fees).
The person who loses the case usually pays the fees related to the court case itself (e.g., experts' fees, administrative fees).
In some cases, the person who loses at trial may have to pay a sum of money to compensate the lawyer fees that the other party had to pay. This would happen if the action was declared abusive.
In most cases, the government pays all the costs of the case.
The accused pays costs related to defending herself.
People with low income sometimes qualify for legal aid. Legal aid is a government program that provides for a lawyer free of charge.
Deadline for Taking a Case
People who suffer damage can't wait too long to take legal action. The law has certain deadlines. This is called extinctive prescription.
The deadlines vary depending on the type of case. For example, someone who wants to sue for defamation - damage to a person's reputation - has one year to take a case.
When a crime takes place, the lawyer for the prosecution decides whether there is enough evidence to accuse someone of the crime.
Generally, there is no deadline for bringing a criminal case against someone of a crime.
However, for a crime “punishable by summary conviction”, the deadline for taking a case is 1 year after the date of the crime. The Criminal Code states whether a crime is punishable in this way.
Role of Person Who Suffered Damage or of the Victim
The person who suffered damage must prove that the person being sued is responsible for the damage.
More specifically, the person suing must prove that the other person committed a fault and that this fault caused the damage.
Since the government takes the accused to court, the victim is usually a key witness in the case.
The person taking the case must convince the judge that his version of the events is more probable than the other version presented. It is not necessary to convince the judge that his version is true "beyond a reasonable doubt".
If the government does not present enough evidence, or if the accused raises a reasonable doubt, the accused must be found not guilty.
Important! In a civil case, the level of evidence needed to convince the judge that someone was at fault is not as high as in a criminal case.
This is why a person taken to court in a civil case and a criminal case for the same act can be held responsible in the civil case but found not guilty in the criminal case.
Types of Orders the Judge Can Make
If the judge decides in favour of the person who suffered damage, she can require the person responsible for the damage to compensate the other person, by ordering the payment of a sum of money, for example.
However, the judge cannot order imprisonment in a civil case, unless someone is in contempt of court. Contempt of court includes not following a court order, or failing to show the proper respect for a judge or for court rules.
If the accused is found guilty, the judge can order different punishments. For example, she can order the guilty person to go to jail, pay a fine or do community work.
In some cases, the judge can also require the guilty party to compensate the victim for any damage.
Differences Between Civil Trials and Criminal or Penal Trials
This article explains in a general way the law that applies in Quebec. This article is not a legal opinion or legal advice. To find out the specific rules for your situation, consult a lawyer or notary.
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