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(This column is intended to address commonly asked questions about the criminal justice process for defendants. We intend to explain the roles of the various persons at each stage in this process beginning with the arrest and questioning stage and concluding with further information and resources. We will also address how long you can be held in custody and other rights and responsibilities you should be aware of. This column in no way replaces your need to personally consult your attorney-at-law or your own readings on the existing law (Prepared by Sparman and Small attorneys-at-law)
Appearance before judicial Officer
What is meant by court/courtroom etiquette?
You should schedule a meeting with your attorney-at-law before your first court appearance, if you have retained the services of an attorney-at-law. At this meeting you should ask your attorney-at-law to clarify any of the issues, approaches and your role in the process. You should also ask questions about courtroom etiquette and existing court protocols including how to dress, how to address the Judicial Officer (Magistrate/Judge), Prosecutors and court staff, and how to respond to questions. However, if you are unrepresented by an attorney-at-law the following are some common guidelines that you should be aware of:
1. You should NEVER be late or absent when appearing for your matter, unless circumstances are beyond your control and you have a VALID excuse.
2. You should always dress appropriately. It may seem that what is appropriate may be subjective. However, it is safer to wear somber coloured, non-revealing, loose clothing than very bright coloured, revealing, tight clothing.
3. You should stand and show respect when the Magistrate/Judge enters the courtroom and approaches the bench to commence or continue proceedings.
4. You should not eat or drink in the courtroom.
5. You should not use hostile or foul language toward anyone in the courtroom, especially the Magistrate/Judge.
6. Avoid cross-talking or interrupting anyone else while they are speaking while court is in session.
7. Turn off your cellphone(s) and electronic devices before entering the courtroom and keep them off until you leave the courtroom.
8. Do not record court proceedings with any electronic device.
9. Do not bring any weapon into the courtroom or the surrounding areas of the court.
Video-conferencing (Zoom) etiquette
Video conferencing has become an essential tool for facilitating Court meetings/hearings/ sessions since the COVID-19 pandemic. The following are some additional guidelines specific to engaging on Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms for your Court meetings/hearings/sessions:
1. You should be aware of the meeting l. D., password, time and date of the meeting prior to the time the meeting is scheduled to commence. It is prudent to check for any changes of these particulars prior to the meeting time.
2. Ensure that you own or can borrow a working device (cellphone, tablet, iPad laptop or desktop) prior to the meeting date to access the meeting. Download the video conferencing app (Zoom) and complete a test run on the device to ensure that there would be a lesser risk of technical difficulties on the actual meeting date.
3. Ensure that you will have access to working internet connection(s) prior to the meeting date.
4. On the date of the meeting, log in with your full name about 10-15 minutes before the meeting time.
5. Choose an appropriate location to engage in the meeting. Avoid noisy and crowded places, instead choose a quiet,well-lighted place without other people or distractions.
6. Turn your camera on and ensure you are muted unless you are asked to identify yourself or asked to respond to the Magistrate/Judge.
7. Avoid unnecessary movements while your camera is on. Avoid making unnecessary sounds while you are not muted.
8. Quickly log on again to the meeting if you are accidentally disconnected from it due to temporary loss of internet connection etc.
9. You are only allowed to leave the meeting when the meeting has ended, or if the Magistrate/Judge indicates that you may leave the meeting.
What happens at the initial Court Appearance?
This is the stage where you, the defendant, would be further advised of your rights and your charge(s) by the Magistrate/Judge. You will be reminded by the Magistrate/Judge of your right to legal representation by Counsel. However, if your Counsel is present they will have to formally indicate that they will be appearing for you in the instant proceedings. This indication by Counsel will be documented on the Court’s record. Further, any change or absence of Counsel during the course of proceedings would be documented on the record.
Additionally, at this stage the charge(s) would be read to you so that your trial could properly commence. You will also be advised as to the penalties for the charge(s) in the eventuality that you are convicted at the end of the trial. Your charge(s) will be recorded on a document called a complaint. You should ensure that the charges read to you in court are the same as the charges written on your copy of the complaint, and if there are any discrepancies your Counsel should clarify such with the Court. However, if there are no discrepancies you would be required to plead to each charge in the ordinary course of summary proceedings.
Am I fit to plead?
A defendant who is NOT mentally incapacitated (mentally incapable due to mental illness) may be deemed fit to plead. However, if you have a mental illness that is certain to affect your understanding of what is happening at trial, action should be taken by your Counsel to raise your mental incapacity as a concern with the Magistrate/Judge.
Should I be forced to make a certain plea?
The short answer to this question is no. You should not be forced to make a certain plea. Your plea should be made by you to reflect that the plea is of your free will and that you completely understand what you are pleading. This means that your Counsel is not allowed to plead for you or tell you how to plea. However, your Counsel is allowed to explain to you the meaning of the types of plea and allow you to personally make your plea decision.