What happens at my first court appearance?
When you are charged with a criminal offence, you will be given a specific date for your first court appearance. Depending on the jurisdiction and offence, the date could be a few days or a few months away from the day you are charged. Your first court appearance is not a trial. The prosecutor in court will likely not have reviewed your file and none of the witnesses or police officers will attend. The primary purpose of the first court appearance is so that you can be provided with disclosure and make an informed decision on how to proceed. Disclosure is the entire Crown Prosecutor’s case against you, including, but not limited to, witness statements, videos, photographs and police notes.
In a perfect world, an accused would be provided with all disclosure prior to the first court appearance, but that is rarely the case. Depending on the offence, disclosure may take several months to obtain.
Most often on the first court appearance, your matter will be adjourned to a future date so that the Crown Prosecutor can prepare and provide the disclosure package to you. If you haven’t requested disclosure prior to the first appearance date, a request can be made in court at that time.
If you have retained a lawyer prior to your first appearance date, you will most likely not have to appear in court as your lawyer will appear on your behalf. If you have not retained a lawyer, you must appear in court or send someone to explain why you are unable to make your court date. If you fail to appear, a warrant will be issued for your arrest and you will be charged with a criminal offence.
If you so choose, you can also plead guilty on the first court appearance. While it is not recommended until you have reviewed disclosure and sought legal advice, an accused can plead guilty at this time. In most jurisdictions, a free lawyer, called Duty Counsel, will speak with you in court prior to you entering a guilty plea. This allows you to understand the consequences of pleading guilty and assist in working out a plea deal with the Crown Prosecutor.