How Criminal Trials Work

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The purpose of a criminal trial is to shed light on the circumstances surrounding a crime. At the trial, evidence is presented to a judge, or sometimes to a jury, to determine if the person charged with a crime committed the crime.


Evidence Presented

If you've been charged with a crime, it would not be up to you to prove your innocence. It's up to the lawyer representing the government, called the "criminal and penal prosecuting attorney", to prove that you are guilty.

For a judge or jury to find you guilty, the prosecutor must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that if there is any doubt in the minds of the judge or jury, you will be found not guilty.

Obviously, if you are accused of a crime, you can always present a defence and try to prove that you're innocent.

For certain crimes, evidence may be presented before a judge and a jury. The people who make up the jury decide if the accused is or is not guilty of the crime.


What Happens During a Trial

Presentation of the Evidence

The criminal and penal prosecuting attorney presents evidence first, because the government has the burden of proving that the person charged with a crime is guilty, often called the accused.

Evidence could take the form of statements by witnesses given before the judge, and items such as

  • photographs,
  • the weapon used to commit the crime,
  • videos, and
  • audio recordings.

Once the prosecuting attorney has finished questioning her witnesses, the lawyer for the accused can then question these witnesses and ask them specific questions to test their reliability. This is called the "cross-examination".

After that, the lawyer for the accused will present the evidence for the accused.

If the lawyer for the accused raises new facts that the prosecuting attorney could not foresee, the prosecuting attorney can respond to that new evidence.  


Oral Arguments

Oral arguments summarize the evidence at the end of the trial. The lawyers address the judge and summarize the following:

  • their versions of the facts
  • how judges have treated similar situations in the past
  • the laws and the rules of law that should be used
  • the conclusion the judge should reach


The Verdict

The verdict is the final decision by the judge. The decision must be based on the evidence presented by each lawyer and not on the judge's personal impressions. Then the judge will either find the accused guilty, not guilty or not criminally responsible.

The judge can give a decision immediately. But the judge can also take the decision "under advisement", which means that the judge takes time to reflect before announcing a decision.

If the trial takes place before a judge and a jury, it is the jurors who must make the verdict. After oral arguments, the judge will summarize the evidence and explain the important elements of the crime, the applicable rules of law and any other issues concerning the trial.

In giving their verdict, the decision of the 12 jurors on the jury must be unanimous. In other words, they must all agree on the verdict.



If the accused pleaded guilty or is found guilty, the judge must decide on the sentence (punishment) for the crime.



If the accused or the prosecuting attorney think that the decision by the judge or jury has a mistake, they might ask a higher court to review it. This is called appealing a decision. It is not always possible to appeal a decision; sometimes the permission of the Court of Appeal is necessary. 

For example, if an accused believes that the judge misunderstood the facts presented at trial, the accused will need the Court of Appeal's permission to appeal the decision made by the trial judge.

Important !
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.