Television shows such as Law and Order portray lawyers who prosecute crime as the heroes – fighting for justice and being the victim’s voice in the court. In real life, these lawyers do play a critical role in the criminal justice system. However, shows that portray prosecutors as the defenders of justice thrive on the audience’s emotions and their desire to see “the bad guy” bought to justice. In these shows, the prosecutors plead to the jury with an unquenchable thirst for justice, bringing viewers to tears. Such courtroom scenes might be real in other jurisdictions. However, in the Canadian criminal justice system, the primary role of Crown prosecutors is neither representing the victims nor securing a conviction.
Who are Crown Prosecutors?
Governments employ lawyers to prosecute crime. In Alberta, these lawyers are Crown prosecutors. The Government of Alberta employs most of the Crown prosecutors in the province, and the federal government employs the rest. Crown prosecutors deal with charges under Canada’s Criminal Code, Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, offences under provincial laws (such as Alberta’s Traffic Safety Act) and more.
The Role of Crown Prosecutors
The role of the Crown prosecutors is to represent the interests of the community. Crown prosecutors are not lawyers for the police, the victims, or the accused.
Crown prosecutors have a quasi-judicial role (a judicial role performed by a non-judicial official) in that they decide whether to prosecute a case. If there is enough evidence and the case is in the public interest, the Crown prosecutor prosecutes the charges laid by the police against the accused. In the absence of enough evidence or if not in the public interest, the Crown prosecutor withdraws the charges or enters a stay of proceedings. In complex matters, the office of the Crown prosecutor may assist the police during an investigation. However, usually the police independently conduct the investigation before passing the case to the Crown prosecutors.
The role of the Crown prosecutors is not to secure a conviction. The Supreme Court of Canada in Boucher v The Queen stated:
It cannot be over-emphasized that the purpose of a criminal prosecution is not to obtain a conviction, it is to lay before a jury what the Crown considers to be credible evidence relevant to what is alleged to be a crime. Counsel have a duty to see that all available legal proof of the facts is presented: it should be done firmly and pressed to its legitimate strength but it must also be done fairly. The role of prosecutor excludes any notion of winning or losing; his function is a matter of public duty than which in civil life there can be none charged with greater personal responsibility. It is to be efficiently performed with an ingrained sense of the dignity, the seriousness and the justness of judicial proceedings. [emphasis added]
Crown prosecutors must observe the accused’s right to a fair trial, and be independent and dispassionate. They must review the evidence objectively and not form their own opinion of what happened. Forming a premature prosecutorial theory is called “tunnel vision” and can contribute to wrongful convictions.
Why Must We Learn About the Role of Crown Prosecutors?
Canada is rooted in the principles of the rule of law (no one is above the law) and democracy. Our criminal justice system plays a vital role in upholding these principles. Awareness of the law and those who administer it helps those interacting with the justice system better understand their rights. Education can also help reduce our frustration with, and the potential for abuse in, the justice system.
The role of the Crown prosecutors is to represent the interests of the community.For example, victims of crime often think that the Crown prosecutor assigned to the case is their lawyer and will represent their interests in court. This is not true. Crown prosecutors will usually meet with victims to get their evidence and will decide if the victim should be a witness in the case against the accused. However, the Crown prosecutor makes all of the decisions about how the case will proceed.
Think also about a person charged with a criminal offence. The complexity of the justice system could easily intimidate them. However, the court has a duty to ensure the process is fair and that the accused’s rights are respected. And Crown prosecutors play a part in this system.
Rights of the Victims and Accused
Victims have certain rights that Crown prosecutors must respect. Victims have a right to obtain information. This includes information about the justice system, services available to them and the status of the case. Victims also have a right to participate in the criminal justice process. In some cases, victims have a right to have their own lawyer in court to represent their interests. For example, victims of sexual violence have a right to counsel (and the right to be informed of the right to counsel) when they have to provide evidence on their sexual activities (sections 276 and 278.94 of the Criminal Code) or when required to provide certain records to the court (section 278 of the Criminal Code).
… the primary role of Crown prosecutors is neither representing the victims nor securing a conviction.The accused also has rights the Crown prosecutor must respect. The accused has the right to trial within a reasonable time, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the right to not be denied reasonable bail without just cause. Crown prosecutors must—in a timely fashion—provide disclosure (the reasons for the charge and the evidence against the accused) to the accused so that the accused can fully respond to the charges against them. The accused’s lawyers (defence counsel) and Crown prosecutors are “equal contributors and advocates of justice.” Crown prosecutors cannot purposefully make the procedure difficult for the accused or defence counsel.
Both the victims and the accused have a right to an interpreter if they do not speak or understand the language of the proceedings or have impaired hearing.
If someone has a concern with how a Crown prosecutor is handling a case, they may voice their concern to the chief Crown prosecutor at the Crown prosecutors’ office that handled the case, the Director of Public Prosecutions for cases within federal jurisdiction, or the Law Society of Alberta. The person may also want to get legal advice from a lawyer about the situation.
The role of Crown prosecutors is to represent society when prosecuting those charged with crimes. Contrary to what some people may think, a Crown prosecutor’s role is not to represent victims or secure convictions. Education about the justice system and the roles of the people involved with it is the first line of defence to protect one’s rights. Victims empowered with the knowledge of their rights and the Crown prosecutors’ role can avoid frustrations with criminal justice proceedings. And those charged with a criminal offence can understand how Crown prosecutors play into their right to a fair and just process.