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Navigating the youth criminal justice system

A call from the police that your child has been arrested and charged with a criminal offence is often in keeping with a parent's worst nightmare. While your head will be swirling with fear and panic, it is helpful as a first step to gain some understanding of the court process. Navigating the criminal system can feel confusing and overwhelming but it is important to remember that generally most youth cases follow all of the same steps.

Step 1 -Charges: Your child is charged with an offence and most often is released from the police station with two documents, a Promise to Appear and an Undertaking to a Peace Officer. The Undertaking is a list of rules that your child needs to follow while the criminal charge is working its way through the court system. The Promise to Appear will state when and where your child has his or her first court date.

Step 2-Remand Court: All first court dates occur in what is called Remand Court. This is sort of like homeroom in high school, where the teacher takes attendance, makes sure you've done your home work and then sends you on to your next class. Similarly, a young person or a lawyer appearing on his or her behalf is required to attend Remand Court to ensure they are dealing with the charge. In a Remand Court nothing substantial happens, it is not a court where you plead guilty or where your trial is heard. Rather a youth, or his or her lawyer, is required to attend just to report on the progress that is being made in relation to dealing with the charge(s).

First Appearance in Remand Court: Generally, disclosure (which is the evidence in the case against your child) is provided to Counsel at the first court date. The matter is then normally adjourned for two reasons: in order for the lawyer to review the disclosure with you and your child and in order for the lawyer to conduct a counsel pre trial.

Counsel Pre Trial: After having had the opportunity to review the disclosure, your child's lawyer will meet with a prosecutor to discuss the case. This is a behind closed doors meeting between the two lawyers where the negotiation happens. Once the counsel pre trial has been conducted, the matter is returned to Remand Court to report on the progress that has been made.

Second Remand Court Appearance: What happens next in Remand Court depends on the outcome of the Counsel Pre Trial. It may be that the matter needs to be adjourned to receive additional disclosure, or it may be that additional time is needed to continue negotiations with the prosecutor. Often times though, the next step is to set a Judicial Pre Trial.

Judicial Pre Trial: This is like the Counsel Pre Trial, in that it is a behind closed doors meeting, except that a judge is also present. The judge is present to try to assist in finding a resolution to the case, and also to explore how long the case would take if it goes to trial.

After the Judicial Pre Trial (if one occurs in your case), your lawyer will meet with you and your child again to discuss options. At this point the negotiations have been finalized, and generally there will be some kind of offer of resolution to consider. Your lawyer will explain the options to you and your child and will provide an opinion as to the risks and benefits of each option.

Step 3- Decisions: After having reviewed all the disclosure, engaged in meetings with the prosecutor and thoroughly reviewed the options, barring the withdrawal of the charge (which can often happen through the negotiation process), your child will have to make a decision. Either they will be pleading guilty to some version of the allegation with which they are charged (it can often be watered down or a less serious version of the original allegation) OR they will decide that they want to challenge the prosecutor's case and go to trial. This decision is reported at the last remand court appearance. A date will then be scheduled for either the guilty plea or the trial. This decision triggers the move from the Remand Court, where nothing substantial happens, to a courtroom where the act of pleading guilty or going to trial will actually occur.

Step 4 - Action: If your child is pleading guilty for a resolution that has been worked out, your child's lawyer will have a lot of control over picking the timing of the guilty plea. In contrast, if your child has decided to go to trial, in Ottawa, generally the trial will be heard at least 9 months after the decision is made. This is because of the large number of matters that go to trial, as compared to the number of judges and courtrooms that are available to hear them.

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