The Docket – First Court Appearance – Guilty Plea by Jeff Bogaerts, Paralegal

The first in a series of informational articles by paralegal Jeff Bogaerts, this report walks the reader through a typical first appearance in court. It may be instructional to many facing their first day in court. Stay tuned for the second article “Hell No – Not Guilty” in a future edition of the ENews.

Order in the court, all rise.
“Court is now in session, please be seated. Introducing Mr./Madame Justice _______________ now presiding. Oyez, Oyez, Oyez, Anyone having business before the Superior Court of Justice for the Province of Ontario come now forward and attend upon Her Majesty the Queen.”
You may be seated.

I expect that not a lot of people have heard those words spoken in quite some time. Certainly, not in the lower courts for traffic offences and by-laws.

How unfortunate that we do not open every court with the same vigour and passion to seek the truth and bring all the parties at odds with each other to be heard.
For quite some time, I and other colleagues have been trying to create a series of workshops to take on the road across the Province to educate the people as to how our courts work and teach some of the general laws we seem to be running into, such as municipal by-laws. To remove the fear of walking into a courtroom where there should be no fear but only the fear of not having the truth spoken. We are still working towards that goal but in the interim I have decided to write a series of articles of how to chart your way through the court system.

In general terms, we have the Ontario Court of Justice and the Superior Court of Justice. There are two different routes to take in court depending on the type of case to be heard. In this series, I will refer to the Ontario Court of Justice, “OCJ”.

We will start with a simple offence that you may have been charged with and use it as the example as we take our walk-a-bout.

In the beginning, you receive your “Summons to Appear”, STA. It should be on yellow coloured paper but not always. I personally expect all summons to be on yellow paper and I find it irritating to be on white paper. As if it was too much of an effort to find yellow paper and process the forms properly.
The STA may be delivered by any number of people such as, Police, by-law officer, building inspector, conservation officer, MNRF, MOE, MOT, MOH and so on. The STA will tell you where and when to appear and what the charge is.

The STA, is not to be ignored. If you cannot show up to court, for whatever reason, make sure somebody is there to represent you. Otherwise, a Bench Warrant for your arrest will be issued, on a charge of Fail to Appear. This is not a pleasant occurrence, especially if you are stopped somewhere for a minor offence and find yourself arrested because of the Warrant. As you are sitting handcuffed in the back of the Police car you can watch your car being towed away to the impound yard. When you get to the Police station you will most likely be released on Your Own Recognizance with a Promise to Appear. Don’t screw this one up, make sure you attend court. However, if prior behaviour shows you don’t follow the rules you will probably stay overnight in the hoosegow for a bail hearing before a judge in the morning. Say goodnight to Bubba before they turn out the jail house lights.

So, assuming you appear as summonsed to court on the day in question, what are your options? Well, the first is to decide if you want to represent yourself (known as a self rep) have a lawyer, paralegal or agent represent you. If you are going to have someone else represent you, you can either appear as well or go on to work or whatever you need to do. Of course, if this was a serious criminal case, you better be there. There are considerations depending on the court you are in and the charge. However, we are using a lower level court example and not a serious charge, unless you consider your snowmobile and trailer parked in your driveway during the summer a serious charge. Yes, that can be an offence, so stop laughing.

If court starts at 9:00am, show up at least 30 minutes before. Look for the prosecutor who will be the person with a boatload of files standing at the table to the right of where the judge sits. Tell them your name so they know you are in court. For a first appearance, you are not going to enter a plea at this time, unless you’re really want to. On the tables in front of the judge you will find the docket sheets. They are in alphabetical order. Scan down to find your name. To the left of your name you will find your docket number(s).

When court is in session, the cases are called first for lawyers and paralegals, followed by agents and self reps. So, if you are a self rep, pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable while you wait. Use this time to watch the proceedings; it is an opportunity to see how the court operates. I travel across Ontario and most of the time the courts operate the same. There are some small differences but nothing significant.

Finally, you hear your name called. Walk up to the front and stand on the left. This is for the defendants. Now it is time to identify yourself. If the judge is wearing a Green Sash address them as Your Worship. If the sash is red, it is Your Honour. Do not wear a hat, chew gum, talk loud, use the cell phone (turn it off), rustle papers or make any noise that is not necessary and, for the love of god, leave the Tim’s Coffee outside. Clothes: you are not expected to wear a three-piece suit or a designer dress, but do not look like you just got out of bed and did not get your two cups of coffee either. Wear something other than what you wore the night before or what you expect to wear to work, like coveralls, short skirts, torn shirts, hockey sweaters, tank tops. It looks like crap and does not impress the court. Be clean, reasonably dressed, and coherent and speak up.

So, there you are standing at the front. State your name for the record. You will be asked if you have a representative such as a lawyer or paralegal. You can say, not at this time, I am seeking representation, or no I am self-represented. You may be asked if you want to enter a plea at this time and the answer is up to you as to yes or no and if yes, guilty or not guilty. If guilty, then you can hear the charges, the prosecution will give the elements of the charge. The judge will ask you if this is essentially correct. You say yes, no or sort of. You can make a statement. The judge will take your statement into consideration. You will be asked if you are entering the plea with full knowledge and without being compelled to. The judge gives their decision of guilty, sets the fine, asks you if you need time to pay (no, yes). If yes, you can have up to six months to pay; everything is done and you go home.

At out next court appearance, we will proceed with a “Hell No, Not Guilty” plea.