Thinking of Representing Yourself in a Criminal Case? Here's a Reason to Think Twice.
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
R v. Krzehlik is a simple case, but it’s full of lessons about what can happen when you don’t have a capable criminal defence lawyer on your side. It’s also a prime example of an irreversible sequence of events that unfolds in Ontario courtrooms every single day.
Mr. Krzehlik was arrested and held for bail on domestic-related allegations involving his wife and his son. He was 65 years old at the time and had no prior criminal record. He had been married for 24 years.
Mr. Krzehlik’s first night in jail was a Thursday. By the following Monday – just four days later – he was in front of a judge pleading guilty. He never tried for bail because he didn’t have a plan; and at his guilty plea, he was self-represented. Duty counsel would not assist him, and he had not taken the time to hire a Toronto criminal defence lawyer.
Have a look at the exchange between Mr. Krzehlik and the judge presiding over his guilty plea:
THE COURT: All right sir. Is what I’ve been told substantially correct? Is that basically correct sir?
MR. KRZEHILK: No Your Honour.
THE COURT: Well let’s – the incidents in question…
MR. KRZEHLIK: Can I ask…
THE COURT: Just hang on a second. Can I see the Information please? All right. The two counts that you pleaded guilty to refer to February of this year.
MR. KRZEHLIK: Yes sir.
THE COURT: And the allegation there was that you held a knife to [your wife’s] throat and threatened to slit her throat. Is that correct sir?
MR. KRZEHLIK: Can I give you the…
THE COURT: No sir, I need to know an answer to that. That’s the gist of what…
MR. KRZEHLIK: Yes sir.
THE COURT: Is that correct?
MR. KRZEHLIK: Yes sir.
THE COURT: All right and on count nine, what I’ve been told is that you hit [your son] when he was showering after you told him that he couldn’t shower. Is that correct sir? Well did you hit him that day sir? Sometime in February 2012.
MR. KRZEHLIK: I would say yes Your Honour.
THE COURT: Well sir I don’t…
MR. KRZEHLIK: No, no…
THE COURT: If you say yes, it’s because you did it, not because you’re just saying it.
MR. KRZEHLIK: No I understand that, okay.
THE COURT: Did you do that sir?
MR. KRZEHILK: Yes.
THE COURT: All right, then I’m going to find you guilty of both charges.
MR. KRZEHLIK: Your Honour?
THE COURT: Yes.
MR. KRZEHLIK: Can I not even mention anything about the situation?
THE COURT: Yes you can. I’ll give you a turn in a minute.
MR. KRZEHLIK: Oh thank you.
Sound like a man who could use a criminal defence lawyer? I would say so.
Mr. Krzehlik was sentenced to another 25 days in jail. He was almost certainly banned from possessing any weapons for several years; he almost certainly had to give a sample of his DNA to the police; he was liable to pay hefty victim fine surcharges; and worst of all, he now has a permanent criminal record for extremely serious crimes of violence. This record could prevent him from entering the United States, working, or picking up a volunteer position.
Mr. Krzehlik regretted his decision to plead guilty. From a purely legal standpoint, his case is about whether his guilty plea could – or should – be “struck” down. by the Court of Appeal. As he tried to explain to the appeals court, his guilty plea was "equivocal": he was under extreme stress at the time, and he didn’t fully understand the consequences of what he was doing.
Mr. Krzehlik’s frame of mind is typical of the man or woman who is charged, under extreme stress, and makes the decision not to hire a criminal defence lawyer. Here's how the Court of Appeal describe
 In his affidavit, the appellant describes the early events of Monday, August 13, 2012, as follows. When he arrived at the courthouse for his bail hearing, he was disoriented, depressed and filled with anxiety: “I couldn’t concentrate on anything except surviving the day.” He spoke with duty counsel, a different counsel than the one who had assisted him the previous Friday. He told her he was innocent of all charges. Duty counsel, after speaking to the Crown, advised the appellant that bail would be opposed.
 The appellant came to believe that if he was denied bail he would have to wait at least 60 days before re-applying. He also came to believe that he could plead guilty and hire a lawyer to appeal his case within 30 days. When cross-examined on this point, the appellant explained that he believed that, by appealing, any admissions of guilt he made in court would effectively be withdrawn. He thought this “was routinely done”. The appellant does not allege that anything duty counsel said gave rise to this belief.
 It was against this background that the appellant told duty counsel he would plead guilty. Therefore, before the bail hearing could commence, duty counsel asked that the matter be traversed for a guilty plea […]
Ultimately – and understandably – the Court of Appeal rejected Mr. Krzehlik’s appeal. I won’t get into the details, but the Court drew the conclusion that Mr. Krzehlik understood what he was pleading to and what the consequences would be.
Regardless, it’s from a criminal law practitioner’s standpoint that the case is truly captivating. Because, as I wrote earlier in this blog post, what happened to Mr. Krzehlik happens to others every single day.
Without the right guidance, and often full of mistaken assumptions about the law, self-represented defendants make critical errors they later regret. Charges that could have and should have been fought are forfeited. Defendants who needn’t have had criminal records now have one. An adequate bail plan is never put together.
Whether out of hopelessness or delusion, people like Mr. Krzehlik plead guilty, are sentenced to jail, receive criminal records, and later wish they could do it all differently.
The moral of the story? Don’t make the same mistake Mr. Krzehlik did.
If you’re facing domestic assault charges or another crime, think twice before representing yourself. Unless you have legal training and experience in criminal law, you almost certainly don’t know what you’re doing – and may very well come to regret your choices.