What You Need to Know if You Have Been Charged With a Crime

If you are charged with a crime, understanding how the criminal justice system works will help you to make decisions about how to deal with your situation.

The following is intended to provide information only.  Being charged with a crime is serious, and it is a good idea to speak to a lawyer about your options.  You have the right to hire a lawyer to represent you.  If you cannot afford a lawyer, you can contact Legal Aid (1-866-845-3425), Student Legal Services (Edmonton) or Student Legal Assistance (Calgary) to see if they can help you.


If you are arrested, the police may take you before a Justice of the Peace or Justice for a judicial interim release or “bail” hearing.  You may be required to attend in person, or you may appear by phone or video conference.

At this hearing, the Justice will decide if you should be released or held in custody until your trial.  In most cases, you can only be held in custody if the Crown shows that this is necessary for one of three reasons:

  • To make sure you show up for your court appearances
  • For the public’s protection and safety
  • In order to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice

Under certain circumstances, it is your responsibility (onus) to show why you should be released.

If the Justice decides that you should be released, there may be conditions set for your release.  This might involve setting rules that you need to follow, finding someone who is willing to supervise and vouch for you (a “surety”) or paying money into court. 

You have the right to consult with a lawyer and to hire a lawyer to represent you at your bail hearing.  If you cannot afford a lawyer, you can contact Legal Aid (1-866-845-3425) to see if they can help you.

If the Court denies you bail, you will be held in custody until the trial or until further order of the Court.  An order denying bail can be reviewed in the Court of King's Bench but this is a process which can take significant time.  For these reasons, it is very important to consider whether you should get the assistance of Duty Counsel or your own lawyer to assist you at your bail hearing.

First Appearance Important Steps

When you are charged with an offence, you must appear in Court. The time and date of your first appearance will be written on the release documents you received from police.

Before your first appearance:

  • If you are going to hire a lawyer, do so immediately. They can make sure you are ready if you hire them well before court.
  • If you do not have a lawyer, consult the Case Management Offices Protocol. It is important that you speak with a duty counsel lawyer before the day of your appearance. Duty counsel can assist you with brief legal advice and help guide you through the necessary next steps to deal with your charges.  This is your case and your responsibility. Do not wait until the day of court.
  • If you need more time to hire a lawyer, or get more information or help, ask a  court counsellor (duty counsel, Native Counselling Services) to help you explain this to the Justice.
  • Contact the Crown prosecutor's office to get a copy of the police investigation file (disclosure). This will tell you why you are charged and what the evidence is against you. Crown Office contact information is in the pamphlet Information for self-represented litigants in Provincial Court: Adult Criminal Court. The Crown will not be able to give you disclosure at your First Appearance if you do not contact them before that date. 
  • Use the links and resources on this site to find information about the law and the Alberta Courts. Read the pamphlets below.
  • Decide what to plead before your first appearance. You may plead guilty or not guilty. Duty counsel will be there to help. If you plead not guilty you will be setting a trial date at the same time that you enter your plea.
    • If you plan to plead guilty, get duty counsel to help you do this. The Justice must assure him or herself that you accept responsibility for all the essential elements of the offence. You cannot plead guilty just to “get it over with”. Speak with duty counsel to ensure that you understand your options, the requirements for pleading guilty, and the consequences. 
  • The Justice may ask you questions to find out if you are prepared for your trial (see pamphlets below for more information)

If you do not take these steps to prepare for your First Appearance, you will have to explain to the court why you did not. The court may not give you more time and may require you to enter a plea.

Information for self-represented litigants

If you are charged with a criminal offence, it is a good idea to speak to a lawyer about your options.  You have the right to hire a lawyer to represent you.  However, you also have the right to represent yourself – this is called being “self-represented.”

The pamphlet Information for self-represented litigants in Provincial Court: Adult Criminal Court helps people who are self-represented to prepare for their trial and to understand more about the criminal trial process.

The pamphlet You’ve been charged with a crime: What you need to Know provides general information about how the criminal justice system works, what happens during the criminal trial process and it sets out some of the options for obtaining a lawyer. 

The Criminal Law Handbook for Self-Represented Accused is intended as a reference for self-represented litigants (SRLs) who are accused of committing a crime and are required to appear in a Canadian criminal court. While this Handbook cannot anticipate all of the possible situations that may arise, it is intended to provide you, the SRL accused, with a starting point to assist and guide you.

The Gladue Rights Brochure explains the Gladue Report rights. If you are Indigenous, have been charged with a crime, and may spend time in custody as a result, you have a right to a Gladue Report.