Basic Principles of Canadian Criminal Law

Principles of Canadian Criminal Law


Are you completely unfamiliar with criminal law and its terminology? Below, you will find more information on the basic principles of criminal law in Canada.

Introduction to Criminal Law

Criminal law governs actions that result in injury to people or property. Most criminal law is governed by the federal government and are found in the Criminal Code of Canada. A crime occurs when an individual breaks one of Canada’s criminal laws. Crimes consist of two components the action (“actus reus”) and the intent (“men’s rea”). Both of these components must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” for a person to be found guilty of a crime. But what does this mean? Let’s break down the basic concepts:

1) The burden of proof

The accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The Crown counsel bears the burden of proof, meaning that they are the ones who have to demonstrate the guilt of the accused, instead of the accused proving that they are innocent. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard that the Crown must meet to have fulfilled this burden of proof. It means that if the judge or jury has any reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime, they cannot convict them.

Evidence is what the Crown counsel will have to use to demonstrate the guilt of the accused. The evidence consists of facts and information that show that a statement is true. Some examples of evidence often used in criminal trials are witness testimony, physical evidence such as a weapon, and demonstrative evidence such as diagrams.

2) The elements of a crime

Actus reus

A “guilty act” or actus reus can fall into 3 categories:

  1.  An act, such as stealing.
  2.  The omission of an act, such as a parent failing to sufficiently provide for their child.
  3.  A state of being, such as the possession of an illicit substance like cocaine.

Whether any such actus reus constitutes criminal behaviour will depend on 4 C’s:

  1.  Conduct: the offence specifically outlined in the criminal charge, such as first degree murder.
  2.  Consequences: the outcome of the offence, such as death for homicide.
  3.  Circumstances: the relevant circumstances which make the offence illegal, such as the offender inflicting a fatal stab wound on the victim.
  4.  Causation: the link showing that the conduct of the offender caused the consequence to occur, such as the offender’s stab wound causing the victim to die.

Mens rea

The offender committing a “guilty act” must do so with either intent, knowledge or recklessness.

Motive, or the reason behind a crime, is not necessary to prove, although it can be an important factor after a guilty verdict when judges are considering an offender’s sentence.

1) There are two types of intent:

● Specific intent: Where the offender specifically intended, or planned, the outcome of the act

● General intent: The offender may not have thought beyond the act towards its outcome but intended the act itself (such as crimes of passion)

2) “Knowledge” refers to the awareness that the act being committed is illegal.

3) “Recklessness” occurs when an offender is unduly careless and acts with no consideration of potential consequences.

Nothing in this article should be considered or relied on as legal advice or opinion. If you need help with a criminal matter, don’t hesitate to contact Tailor Law. You can reach our office at 905-366-0202 or contact us through our website here.


– Justice Education Society, “Lesson 1: Introduction to Criminal Law” (16 July 2020): Law Lessons: Teachers and Students [JES]

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