Preparing for your first criminal court appearance

This page gives legal information only, not legal advice. If you are charged with a criminal offence you should get legal advice as soon as possible. This page gives general information on how you can get legal advice before your first court appearance.

Q - I’ve been given a notice to appear in court, do I need to talk to a lawyer?

Yes. If you don’t talk with a lawyer before you go to court, or you don’t have a date scheduled to meet with a lawyer, or you don’t go to court with a lawyer, you are missing an important opportunity to give the judge a favourable impression.

At your first court appearance you want the judge to be left with the opinion that you are taking the matter seriously and have done your part to properly prepare for court.

Do not leave it until the day of or a day or two before your court date to try to find a lawyer. Getting advice can help you prepare for going to court, help you understand what will happen, and help you make decisions about your case.

Q - What happens if I don’t contact a lawyer?

If you go ahead without getting advice, you may make decisions or represent yourself in a way which harms your case or puts you at a disadvantage. If you decide you want to speak with a lawyer once you are in court, you will have to persuade the judge to adjourn (that is, delay) the hearing to a later date to allow you time to speak with a lawyer. The judge will want to know why you didn’t get legal advice ahead of time.

Q - Can I get Legal Aid to help me?

There are two ways that Legal Aid may be able to help.

First, if you are charged with a criminal offence, you may qualify for representation by Legal Aid depending on the type of offence and your income. You should call the local Legal Aid office as soon as possible to apply for help. You will find the number in the white or blue pages of the phone book under Nova Scotia Legal Aid or Legal Aid, or visit nslegalaid.ca. If you have a date to see a Legal Aid lawyer, tell the judge when you go to court. The judge can then adjourn (that is, delay) the first hearing until after you have seen the lawyer.

Second, in Halifax and Dartmouth, Legal Aid provides Duty Counsel at the Provincial Court. Legal Aid Duty Counsel can help anyone who does not have a lawyer but who needs legal advice or help in dealing with a criminal offence. You can get help from Duty Counsel even if you don’t qualify for Legal Aid. They cannot help with provincial offences such as speeding and illegal possession of liquor.

Legal Aid Duty Counsel can:

  • provide you with advice
  • review the Crown prosecutor’s file (called 'disclosure')
  • speak with the Crown prosecutor on your behalf
  • provide you with advice on how to conduct a trial, how to address the judge, how to subpoena witnesses and how to give evidence in your own defence.

Duty Counsel can also enter a plea for you and speak to sentence if you plead guilty, assist you to elect (choose) in which court the trial will take place, help set dates for hearings, and may help you get a Legal Aid appointment. They are there to help with the first steps, not to represent you at your trial.

Duty Counsel are available at the Halifax and Dartmouth Provincial Courts Monday to Friday. You can ask at the front desk of the court for directions on where to find duty counsel. Duty Counsel for both the Dartmouth & Halifax Provincial Courts can be reached at 420-7800.

Q - What can I do if duty counsel are not available in my area and I don’t qualify for Legal Aid?

You should still try to speak with a lawyer before you go to court. You can contact a lawyer in private practice. They are listed in the yellow pages of the telephone directory - look for a lawyer who does criminal law. You can also call the Legal Information Society’s Lawyer Referral Service and ask for a referral to a lawyer. Lawyers on this service provide a 30 minute consultation for a fixed fee of $20 + tax, and charge regular fees after the first 30 minutes. To use the Lawyer Referral Service call 455-3135 or 1-800-665-9779 toll free in Nova Scotia.

Q - Do I need to talk with a lawyer if I intend to plead guilty?

It is wise to get legal advice, even if you plan to plead guilty. Before you plead guilty you should be sure that you understand the consequences. Do not plead guilty just because you "want to get it over with". Depending on the offence, conviction may result in a prison term. You may get a criminal record which can affect your employment opportunities and your ability to travel outside Canada.

Q - Do I need legal advice if I plan to plead not guilty and to represent myself?

Yes. A lawyer can provide advice on your situation, provide advice on how to conduct your trial, subpoena witnesses and give evidence in your own defence. Being charged with any criminal offence is a serious matter. If you get advice before you go to court, you will be better prepared, have a better understanding of your rights and the court process, and may avoid delays in the hearing of your case. For more general information about the Legal Aid program in Nova Scotia visit nslegalaid.ca.

This page was produced thanks to the generous support of the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission.

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