What you should know
There are two main laws that come into play when talking about young people and criminal law.
The most important is the federal criminal law called the Criminal Code. It covers common crimes like shoplifting, breaking and entering, car theft, and assault. It also covers the most serious crimes, like murder. (Another federal law covers illegal drugs.)
The second key law is the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which controls how federal criminal laws (such as the Criminal Code) apply to young people between ages 12 and 17.
If you're a young person charged under a federal criminal law (such as the Criminal Code), you have the right to a lawyer to represent you. Anytime you are in court without a lawyer, you can tell the judge you want a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, the judge will refer you to legal aid. It is best to speak with a lawyer before you go to court the first time. Below, we suggest options to find a lawyer.
The identity of a young person in youth court proceedings is normally protected. Information that identifies you can be published only in limited cases. This is called a publication ban. A judge can decide to lift a publication ban at the sentencing stage in more serious cases.
For some types of offences, the Youth Criminal Justice Act has a procedure called extrajudicial measures (also known as diversion) for young people who take responsibility for their actions. Instead of having a trial where a judge decides if you are guilty, you can be diverted (or taken) out of the court system.
Usually, you must admit your guilt in writing and take responsibility for your actions by doing community service and apologizing to the victim. Often, you apologize by writing a letter to the victim. The program can include counselling and restorative justice, where you meet with the victim.
Your lawyer can ask the prosecutor (the lawyer bringing the case against you) to consider you for a diversion program.
Young people may be held in custody before a trial where they have been charged with a serious offence, or have a history of charges or convictions.
A serious offence is any indictable offence with a maximum punishment (for an adult) of five or more years in jail. It includes violent offences, some property offences (for example, theft over $5,000 or auto theft), and offences that significantly endanger others (for example, dangerous driving or unauthorized possession of a firearm).
A trial of a young person is open to the public unless the judge decides it should be private. Then the judge can order that only certain people can be in the court. They would usually be the young person, their parents, their lawyer, the prosecutor, and the youth worker.
When you are charged with a crime, the law presumes you are innocent. At the trial, the prosecutor (called “Crown counsel”) must prove you are guilty of the offence. They must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
If you are found guilty, the penalty you get is called a sentence. The judge may ask a youth court worker to prepare a pre-sentence report. The report will tell the judge about you, including whether you've been in trouble before.
Here are some of the sentences a judge can give, alone or in combination:
- An absolute discharge. The judge finds you guilty but then discharges you instead of convicting you. A record of your discharge will be kept on file for one year and then deleted.
- A probation order. The judge places you on probation for up to two years. You must report regularly to a probation officer.
- A community service order. The judge orders you to perform up to 240 hours of community service.
- A fine. The judge sets an amount up to $1,000 you must pay to the court.
- A restitution order. The judge orders you to pay money to the victim for their loss or return property to them.
- A custody order. The judge sets a period of time you must spend in a youth custody facility. For most offences, the maximum time in custody is 16 months, plus eight months of supervision after release from the facility.
A judge can consider your pattern of criminal activity — not just whether you are guilty in the case — in deciding whether to put you in custody.
A judge can give a young person the same sentence an adult would get if:
- the offence has a sentence (for adults) of more than two years in jail, and
- the offence was committed after the young person turned 14.
A young person must serve their sentence in a youth facility until they turn 18 — even if they receive an adult sentence.
A young person can remain in a youth facility until age 20.
Both the police and the court keep records of convictions of young persons. This information is part of a person’s youth record. This is not the same as a criminal record. (An exception is where a young person under age 18 gets an adult sentence. In that case, the young person will have a criminal record.)
Youth records are usually kept private and deleted after a certain time. Until then, the judge can look at them when sentencing a young person.
Sometimes, for the safety of others, the law allows the records to be seen by certain people, like a victim, police officer, or director of a corrections institution.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act requires police to keep records of any extrajudicial measures they use to deal with young persons. In addition to diversion programs, extrajudicial measures include warnings, cautions, and referrals to community agencies. The purpose of this requirement is to help police identify patterns of criminal activity.
Who can help
If you're a young person charged with a federal offence, you have a right to legal representation. Contact Legal Aid BC to see if you qualify for a free lawyer through legal aid.
- Call 604-408-2172 (Greater Vancouver) or 1-866-577-2525 (toll-free)
- Visit website
You can also find a lawyer through the Lawyer Referral Service.
- Call 604-687-3221 (Greater Vancouver) or 1-800-663-1919 (toll-free)
- Visit website
Reviewed for legal accuracy by
Yulina Wang, Guardian Law; James Henry, Crown Counsel; and Lindsay Wold, Crown Counsel
Dial-A-Law has more information on Young people & crime in the section on Crime.