Some criminal offences in Ontario are bound by a statute of limitations. This specifies a timespan during which criminal charges can be filed against an alleged perpetrator.
Generally speaking, after this period passes, it is no longer possible for the individual to be charged with the crime.
However, for many of the most serious offences (indictable offences), no statute of limitations applies in Canada — anyone can call the police and report a crime that took place at almost any time in the past and the alleged offender can be charged as long as he/she is alive.
A good example is a historical sexual offence that took place many years ago. In Canada, victims can come forward and report such crimes and, provided there is sufficient evidence available, the Crown prosecutor can proceed with charges against the alleged offender.
This is somewhat different to over the border in the U.S. where even serious offences are generally covered by statutes of limitations imposed by state and federal laws.
What are indictable, summary and hybrid offences?
In Canada, criminal offences are broadly categorized by how serious they are deemed to be. We do not use the terms misdemeanor and felony, like in the U.S. Instead, the three main categories are:
Indictable conviction offences are the most serious types and are similar to felonies. They can be tried either by a judge alone or by a judge and jury and can lead to penalties of up to life in prison.
Indictable criminal offences include the following types of crimes:
Summary conviction offences are similar to misdemeanors and are considered less serious than indictable offences. They are often considered as “petty crime” and carry lighter sentences. Summary conviction trials are generally held by a judge with no jury present and the penalty is usually up to a $5,000 fine and/or six months in jail.
Examples of summary conviction offences in Ontario include:
- Causing a disturbance in a public place
- Breaching a probation order
- Soliciting prostitution
Some of the most common crimes in Ontario are hybrid offences, which are also known as dual procedure offences. Such cases can proceed as either summary or indictable convictions. The Crown prosecution can select which suits their aims best.
Generally, more serious crimes will proceed as indictments (with harsher penalties) while less serious offences may be prosecuted as summary conviction offences. However, as outlined in the following sections, summary and indictable offences carry different restrictions when it comes to their statutes of limitations, so this may be a factor in the decision.
Examples of hybrid conviction offences include:
- Simple assault
- Impaired driving
- Dangerous operation of a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft
- Sexual assault
- Sexual interference
- Possession of a controlled substance
When considering hybrid offences, the decision of whether to prosecute by summary or indictable conviction will depend on factors such as:
- The seriousness of the allegations
- The accused’s criminal record
- The complexity of the case
- The availability of court resources
- The profile of the case in the community
- Whether the offence falls outside the limitation period for a summary conviction.
- Any other relevant circumstances of the case
What is the statute of limitations for different offences in Ontario?
Indictable offences can be prosecuted at any time after the offence has allegedly been committed. This provides prosecution teams with the maximum possible time to build a case against the defendant (criminal defence lawyers also have more time to build a defence).
Summary offences have a one-year statute of limitations in Canada, as outlined in Section 786(2) of the Criminal Code of Canada. This means there can be no delays in prosecuting such offences and they will generally move more quickly through the Ontario courts than indictments.
Once the 12-month statute of limitations passes, the prosecution will forfeit its right to bring charges against the defendant for the alleged criminal act.
Because crown prosecutors have the discretion to prosecute dual procedure crimes as indictments or summary convictions, hybrid crimes may be bound by a 12-month statute of limitations or no statute of limitations at all.
In some cases, the prosecution has already missed the 12-month statute of limitations for summary offences and must prosecute a hybrid offence by indictment. This provides more time to gather evidence, but it can be more challenging to secure a conviction in front of a jury and with harsher penalties at stake.
Why do summary conviction offences impose a statute of limitation?
The statute of limitations imposed for summary conviction criminal offences recognizes that delays in the case for the prosecution could create difficulties in obtaining reliable evidence and witness testimony.
Legal teams use a variety of strategies when preparing cases and the criminal justice system looks to protect its integrity by imposing these statutes of limitations on crimes. The restrictions also protect the individuals concerned from prolonging the uncertainty and stress of the situation.
Why is there no statute of limitations for indictments?
Indictable criminal offences are considered to be of significant public concern. The Canadian justice system recognizes that perpetrators of such crimes must be held responsible regardless of the amount of time that has passed.
What if a crime was committed but the statute of limitations has expired?
The expiry of the statute of limitations for a criminal offence generally bars the prosecution from filing criminal charges against the accused.
However, if you have witnessed, committed or been the victim of a crime more than 12 months ago, it is advisable to seek legal advice before dismissing the chance of a case being filed. Remember, many criminal offences are classified as “hybrid” and can, therefore, often be prosecuted well beyond 12 months, with no set time limit imposed.
The criminal defence lawyers at Affordable Defence can advise you about your legal rights, options, and obligations during an initial consultation.
Is there a statute of limitations for domestic violence in Canada?
There is no specific offence of family violence addressed in the Criminal Code of Canada. However, the Department of Justice states most acts of family violence are crimes in Canada. Domestic violence may be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological.
The statute of limitations applying to crimes of domestic violence depends on the offence itself. The nature of the relationships of those involved and the unique family situation will be considered by prosecutors, judges, and juries when the case proceeds through the criminal justice system.
For the best possible chance of successfully defending criminal charges, speak to one of our criminal defence lawyers in Ottawa during a free consultation.