The law gives people language rights in court. The rules can be different for different types of cases and in different courts. Note that there are also language guarantees for some aboriginal people.
Language in Criminal Cases
Criminal cases deal with people accused of a crime.
Right to Choose English or French
If you’re accused of a crime, you have a right to choose whether your preliminary inquiry and trial will be in English or in French. A preliminary inquiry is a kind of mini-trial where the judge decides whether the case against you is strong enough to go ahead. The preliminary inquiry and trial can be some of the most important parts of the case.
You must make your choice of language as soon as possible. The law sets a time limit for making your choice. The time limit depends on the type of crime involved. But in some situations, you might be allowed to make your choice later. An example is if you didn’t know you had a right to choose the language and weren’t told by your lawyer or by the judge.
Your right to choose the language includes these rights:
- to get the document that says what you’re accused of (an “information” or an “indictment”) in the language you chose
- to speak the language you chose in court and use it for documents you give to the court
- to have your lawyer speak the language you chose in court and use it for documents given to the court
- the prosecutor must use the language you chose. The prosecutor is the government lawyer who brings your case to court.
- the judge must use the language you chose at the preliminary inquiry and at the trial
- the jury members (if there is a jury) must all speak the language you chose
- to have an interpreter for parts of the case that are not in the language you chose. The government pays for the interpreter.
- to get the judge’s final decision in the language you chose
But the right to choose English or French doesn’t mean that everything that happens in the case will be in the language you chose. For example, some of the evidence might not be in your chosen language.
Also, in some cases, the judge might order a bilingual trial, for example, when two people accused of a crime speak different languages and have their cases heard at the same time.
Language Used by Witnesses
A witness is someone who has relevant information about a court case and is called to court to give this information to the judge.
If you’re called as a witness, you are free to speak English or French. If you don’t speak English or French well enough, you can speak another language with the help of an interpreter. If you are deaf, you can use sign language with the help of an interpreter.
Language in Civil Cases
Non-criminal cases are called civil cases. Civil cases deal with problems between individuals or organizations, for example, a family problem, a problem involving a contract or a problem concerning an inheritance.
You can’t choose the language of a civil case as you can in a criminal case. Instead, each person involved in a civil case has a right to speak English or French in court and use English or French for documents they give to the court. Often, the result is that both English and French are used in the same case.
You can have an interpreter if you don’t understand the language spoken in court. In some cases, the court arranges and pays for the interpreter. In other cases, for example, in small claims court, you have to arrange and pay for the interpreter yourself. Sometimes, the judge will order the losing side to pay the cost of the interpreter.
No matter what language is spoken in court, you have a right to get the judge’s decision in your choice of English or French. In most cases, you will have to ask for it.
Note that if your case is in the Supreme Court of Canada, the Federal Court or the Federal Court of Appeal, the judge’s decision is issued in both languages at the same time. Also, the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal arrange and pay for English and French interpreters. The Supreme Court of Canada provides free simultaneous interpretation for most hearings.
Language Used by Witnesses
If you are a witness, you are free to speak English or French. If you don’t speak English or French well enough, you can speak another language, with the help of an interpreter. If you are deaf, you can use sign language with the help of an interpreter.
Aboriginal Language Rights in Court
Some Crees, Inuit and Naskapis in Quebec are covered by land claims agreements between them and the governments of Canada and of Quebec. These agreements are The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and The Northeastern Quebec Agreement. They contain guarantees to use some aboriginal languages in court.
Crees, Inuit and Naskapis have these rights in court cases (criminal and civil) in the regions covered by the agreements:
- to speak in their own language in court
- to have an interpreter at no cost during the trial
- to have free simultaneous interpretation into their language of decisions given verbally in court
- to have free translations into their language of written decisions not given verbally in court
- to have free simultaneous interpretation into their language of what witnesses said and of other important statements made by the accused, the lawyers and the judge.
In cases where a Cree, Inuit or Naskapi is accused of a crime, Crees, Inuit and Naskapis have the right to be on the jury even though they don’t speak English or French fluently. Speaking English or French fluently is normally a requirement to be on a jury.