Your First Appearance in an Ontario Criminal Court: What to Expect

Updated: Jul 21


Clients are understandably anxious about their first criminal court appearance in Ontario. Many have never stepped into a courtroom before. Naturally, they don’t know what to expect.

In this short, practical guide I explain what first appearance court is like: the purpose it serves, what you should and should not expect, and the things you can do to prepare.



Unlike a trial court, first appearance courts are not designed to test evidence or make decisions about an accused person’s guilt or innocence. Instead, they are largely administrative in nature.

As usual, the information provided in this blog is general in nature and are not a substitute for case-specific legal advice. Real legal advice requires in-depth knowledge of your case, as well as a nuanced understanding of the specific courthouse you are being asked to attend.


If you're facing criminal charges call our law firm today for a free consultation.


Your First Court Appearance is Not a Trial

Your first criminal court appearance in Ontario will almost certainly be in a “set date” court. As the name suggests, set date courts are very much calendar, or date-oriented. The lawyers, defendants, and judges inside the courtroom are constantly discussing future dates: dates for a case to return; dates for a plea; dates for a trial; dates for the lawyers to meet etc.


Listen in for a while and you'll quickly memorize the current month's calendar.

Unlike a trial court, first appearance courts are not designed to test evidence or make decisions about an accused person’s guilt or innocence. Instead, they are largely administrative in nature. From a practical point of view, this means:

  1. You will not be called upon to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty;

  2. You will not be asked to produce any witnesses, evidence, or “your side of the story”; and

  3. Unless they make a personal decision to show up, you should not expect to see any of the witnesses or complainants in your case in court.

The criminal court process is long and often very complex. Your first court appearance in set date court is the starting point of that process.

What to Expect from the Judge at First Appearance Court


The judge or justice of the peace at your first criminal court appearance will not ask about your guilt or innocence. Instead, their role is to ensure that your case is progressing in a meaningful way. At a first criminal court appearance, this usually involves:


  1. Determining if you have a lawyer – and if you don’t, finding out whether you intend on retaining one.

  2. Determining if the Crown has provided you with “disclosure” – a term we use to describe the evidence in your case.

  3. Determining the status of your case more generally – they may ask some technical questions of the Crown or, if you have one, your criminal defence lawyer; and

  4. Deciding on a date for you to return – one that allows enough time for you and the Crown to move your case forward, usually in the range of 3 to 5 weeks.


Most simple cases, for example routine domestic violence charges, will spend anywhere from 2-6 months in the “set date” court stream. Particularly complex cases, like major frauds or homicide cases, may spend a year or more here.


If you have a criminal lawyer representing you, he or she will use this period of time to review the evidence in your case, hold important discussions with the prosecutor, provide you with updates on the file and perform other critical tasks.



If you already have a lawyer, you can expect your first criminal court appearance to go smoothly and quickly.

If you don’t have a Toronto criminal defence lawyer, you'll be asked to provide update of sorts each time you re-appear in “set date” court. “Have you hired a lawyer yet?” “Has the Crown provided you with disclosure?” "How does the Crown wish to proceed?" "Have you decided whether to enter a plea or proceed to trial?” As time goes by, the presiding judge or justice of the peace may ask these questions with increasing sharpness.



How to Prepare for your First Court Appearance


Whether you have a lawyer or not, your basic tasks at a first appearance in criminal court are simple: retrieve your disclosure if it's available; answer the court's simple questions, and select a new date to return. There are a few exceptions to this basic approach, but you’ll need to consult with an experienced criminal defence lawyer to see if they apply.

If you don't have a criminal defence lawyer...

If you don’t have a criminal lawyer, consider arriving early at your first court appearance. Depending on the courthouse, you can expect to be there for some time.


If you'd like the assistance of a free lawyer with your appearance, find out where the Legal Aid Office is and, once there, ask to speak with duty counsel.

Duty counsel is a government-funded lawyer who assists clients who are unrepresented or Legal-Aid funded. From time to time they will also assist individuals who have private lawyers who cannot make it to court that day.



Whether you have a lawyer or not, your basic tasks at a first appearance in criminal court are simple: retrieve your disclosure if it's available; answer the court's simple questions, and select a new date to return.

Duty counsel will provide you with guidance for the day. Be patient, as they are usually very busy. When it's your turn, they'll ask you the same basic questions a judge might and jot down the details. They may also provide you with some quick “summary” advice – that is, advice based on a very limited snapshot of your case.

Back in court, listen carefully for your name. When you hear it called, you'll be invited to join duty counsel in front of the judge or justice of the peace presiding in court. That’s where you will retrieve your disclosure if it’s available; answer the Court's inquiries (usually through duty counsel); and, together with the Court and the Crown, select a new date to return.

Once complete, record your return date and keep your disclosure safe, tidy and unruffled. Your disclosure is the key to your case. Your criminal defence lawyer will need it to advance your case.


If you do have a criminal defence lawyer...


If you already have a lawyer, you can expect your first criminal court appearance to go smoothly and quickly.

The golden rule still applies: be early or on time. If you cannot be on time, make sure that your criminal lawyer knows this ahead of time.

Once in court, your lawyer will handle the work of your first court appearance. As I described in the section above, this will involve calling your name, inviting you to appear in front of the judge or justice of the peace, answering whatever basic questions the judge or justice of the peace ay have, retrieving your disclosure if it’s available, and selecting a return date that matches your lawyer’s schedule.



If your criminal lawyer is not personally present, they may have sent an agent to speak on your behalf. If an agent is not present, your lawyer may have sent duty counsel instructions fin the form of a letter or a fax. These are standard practises and nothing at all to be concerned about.


If your lawyer is not present, don’t worry. Although the presence of a criminal lawyer is comforting, remember that set date court is largely administrative in nature. Most criminal lawyers, especially those with successful practises, would rather devote their time to reviewing evidence, conducting legal research or holding important meetings with judges and prosecutors than appearing in court to select a new date.

If your criminal lawyer is not personally present, they may have sent an agent to speak on your behalf. If an agent is not present, your lawyer may have sent duty counsel instructions in the form of a letter or a fax. These are standard practises and nothing at all to be concerned about.


In most cases, either of these alternatives is perfectly adequate for a first appearance. Remember: a first appearance is largely administrative in nature. It is not a trial and you will not be asked sensitive questions about what actually happened that resulted in your arrest.


If and when your criminal lawyer thinks a personal appearance in set date court is necessary (for example, to place comments on the court record), they will make the necessary arrangements to do so.

If you are unsure about whether your lawyer will be present, speak to them in advance for clarification. In my own practise, my clients always know what to expect before attending every court appearance.

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