Answers to questions frequently asked about the Provincial Court:
This website provides general information about the Provincial Court and B.C. justice system. Comments are provided for information only and cannot be used as legal advice or authority in court or other legal proceedings.
Each person’s circumstances are different. If you have a legal problem you should talk to a lawyer to get legal advice about your own situation. The Clicklaw Helpmap can help you find free or low cost legal advice if you cannot afford a lawyer.
Criminal practice and procedure
What happens at each stage of a criminal prosecution?
How are people charged with offences brought to court?
What will happen if a person does not appear in court as required?
What happens on a person's first appearance in Provincial Court?
How is bail decided?
If I cannot get a lawyer, can I represent myself in Court?
How does a criminal trial proceed in Provincial Court?
Family Court Practice and Procedure
How can the Court help you collect child or spousal support payments that have been ordered but not paid to you?
How can the Court help if you’re a child or spousal support payor whose circumstances have changed so you’re simply not able to pay?
Procedure in family, small claims, criminal, youth and traffic trials
I don’t understand all the words used in court. Where can I find explanations of legal terms?
If I do not have a lawyer, can the judge help me present my case?
I want my trial adjourned (put off to a later date). Should I wait until my next court date to ask for this?
When is a mistrial declared?
Are the results of polygraph (lie-detector) tests admissible in court?
How Trial Scheduling Works
What is a JCM?
How should I conduct myself when I appear in front of a Judicial Case Manager?
What types of matters are scheduled by a JCM?
When can I set a trial or hearing date?
How do I schedule my trial date?
How do I estimate how much court time my trial will need?
Can I set my hearing or trial date online?
Can I pick the judge who will hear my trial, or change the judge if I don’t want him or her to hear the case?
Why do I have to wait months for a trial?
Are trials scheduled the same way in every court location?
What is a subpoena or a summons to a witness?
Do I have to attend court if I receive a subpoena or summons to a witness?
If I am a victim of a crime and am required to attend court as a witness, what should I do?
My criminal record was sealed when I received a pardon, but I need the details of it to apply for a waiver to enter the United States. How do I get my criminal record unsealed?
How do I apply for a position within the Provincial Court?
Can a judge or judicial justice perform marriage ceremonies?
Q. Can I go to court to watch what goes on?
The Provincial Court welcomes people who want to watch what happens in its courtrooms. Public access to court proceedings is an important principle in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada has said:
The open court principle is of crucial importance in a democratic society. It ensures that citizens have access to the courts and can, as a result, comment on how the courts operate and on proceedings that take place in them. Public access to the courts also guarantees the integrity of judicial processes inasmuch as the transparency that flows from access ensures that justice is rendered in a manner that is not arbitrary, but is in accordance with the rule of law. (CBC v. Canada (Attorney General), 2011 SCC 2.)
Trials and most other hearings in Provincial Court are open and public proceedings, and you are welcome to attend court to listen and observe. However, while it rarely occurs, legislation does permit a judge to order that a hearing in Provincial Court be closed in a few special circumstances. In addition, proceedings that focus on mediation and settlement, such as settlement conferences and family case conferences, are generally limited to the parties and their lawyers. To find a courthouse near you check Locations, and for more information on public access see Public and Media Access Policies.
Another way to monitor what our courts do is to read the judges’ decisions posted online at Judgments & Decisions. Reviewing these decisions and the judges’ reasons will provide a broader perspective on what courts do on a daily basis than the media is able to provide.
A Provincial Court judge is addressed as "Your Honour"; a judicial justice or judicial case manager as “Your Worship”.
Dress as you would to attend a job interview or go to a religious service. For example, short shorts, tank tops, 'muscle shirts', 'belly shirts' or bare feet are not appropriate. Remove baseball caps or other hats before going into court (religious headwear excepted). Take off sunglasses and remove chewing gum before appearing before the judge. Turn off cell phones before entering the courtroom.
This material is borrowed from a page on the website of the Provincial Court of Saskatchewan, with changes made to reflect B.C. procedures and resources. The information provided is for general educational purposes only. It is not intended to be used as legal advice. For specific information, consult a lawyer.
1. Being charged
If you are charged with a crime and not held in jail, the police will give you a piece of paper with the date, time and place of your court appearance. It is important that you keep track of your court appearances so that you go to court on time, every time that you are ordered to.
The paper may also give you rules to follow and tell you to go to the police station at a certain time and date so that your photo and fingerprints can be taken.
It’s important that you follow these directions because if you don’t, you may get another charge for not obeying the order. Failing to attend court on any date and time you are given by police or the court is a criminal offence.
2. Initial Appearance (“IA”)
Almost everyone charged with a crime must go to Provincial Court. At your first appearance, the justice will tell you what you’re charged with and read “the information” (the document setting out the charges against you) to you if you wish. If you don’t understand what you’re charged with, tell the justice and he or she or the Crown Counsel (the prosecutor) will explain it.
The prosecutor will give “particulars” (written information on the evidence in your case) to you or your legal counsel (your lawyer). This is called “disclosure”. If you are acting on your own behalf, without a lawyer, you have the right to speak to a Crown prosecutor about your matter. If you have a lawyer, he or she will talk to the Crown instead of you.
The justice will also ask you if you are ready to enter a plea (i.e., guilty or not guilty), or if you need time to talk to a lawyer. At your first appearance, the justice will usually grant an adjournment (put the matter off to another day) to give you time to talk to a lawyer if you need it.
When you speak to the justice, you should call him or her “Your Worship”.
If you want a lawyer to help you and you are able to contact one before you go to court, it may help you to deal with your charges faster and possibly reduce the number of times that you have to come to court. If you’ve seen a lawyer or made an appointment with one, bring any letters or information that your lawyer or his or her office gave you. If you haven’t already contacted a lawyer, the justice can give you information about how to find a lawyer or get legal advice in your community.
In Canada people whose dominant language is one of our official languages (English and French) may ask to have their criminal trial before a judge (or judge and jury in certain cases) who speak their language. If your dominant language is French you may wish to discuss this right with a lawyer. You may also ask the justice about it.
3. Legal Assistance
You may want to have a lawyer help you with your charges. In many cases, especially with more serious charges, this is a good idea. You should always consider talking to a lawyer before you enter a plea. In most Provincial Courts in B.C. there will be a duty counsel provided without charge by the Legal Services Society to give people brief advice and help in entering a plea. When you arrive at court you can ask to see the duty counsel. It may help to arrive about a half hour early.
You can find private lawyers by looking in the phone book. If you want a lawyer’s help, but can’t afford a private one, you may apply for Legal Aid. You can do that by visiting the local Legal Aid office or calling the Legal Services Society at:
604-408-2172 (Greater Vancouver)
1-866-577-2525 (call no charge, elsewhere in BC)
9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays
9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Wednesdays
For more information visit http://www.legalaid.bc.ca/legal_aid/.
Whether or not you get Legal Aid depends on your financial status and the type of charge. If you qualify, a lawyer will be assigned to your case.
4. Bail (Show Cause) Hearing
If you’ve been arrested and kept in custody by a police officer or judicial justice, you’ll appear in Provincial Court as soon as possible. If the Crown prosecutor doesn’t agree to your release, you have the right to a bail hearing (also called a “show cause” or “judicial interim release” hearing). You’ll probably want to have a lawyer help you with the hearing. You may have your own lawyer or a Legal Aid Duty Counsel represent you at your bail hearing that day, or you may agree to put your bail hearing off and remain in custody in order to obtain your own lawyer privately or through Legal Aid.
At the bail hearing, a judge will decide whether you should be released (on bail) and what you must agree to do if you are released. A judge is called “Your Honour” in the courtroom.
The judge will look at three things when deciding on bail. First, he or she looks at the chance that you will not show up for your next court date. Second, the judge looks at whether you are likely to commit further crimes if released or if you are dangerous to the public. Finally, in some cases, the judge may not give you bail if he or she believes granting it would cause people to lose faith in the administration of justice.
At the bail hearing, the Crown prosecutor will tell the judge about your alleged involvement in the crime and about your criminal record, if you have one. You or your lawyer will tell the judge about yourself (your home, your family, where you work or go to school, etc.) and anything else that might help the judge to make a decision.
If you’re released, your matter will be adjourned to a later date when you’ll make your plea or choose the court you want to be tried in. If you aren’t released, you’ll be held on remand until your next court date. Efforts are made to provide earlier trial dates for people who are held in custody while they are waiting for trial.
5. Types of Offences
There are three types of offences (crimes):
- Summary Offences
- Indictable Offences
- Dual or Hybrid Offences
Less serious crimes use what is known as the “summary conviction process”. The court process is simpler and the penalties are lower. More serious crimes proceed “by indictment”. Many crimes are “dual procedure” or "hybrid" meaning the Crown chooses whether it will proceed summarily or by indictment.
6. Choosing a Trial Court
Summary offences are dealt with from start to finish in Provincial Court. For most indictable matters, you have the right to elect (or choose) the type of trial. There are three choices:
1. Trial in Provincial Court, by judge alone
2. Trial in the Supreme Court of B.C., by judge alone
3. Trial in the Supreme Court of B.C., by a judge and jury
The next step in the process depends on which kind of trial you choose and how you plead – guilty or not guilty.
7. Pleas – Guilty or Not Guilty
If you choose to be tried in Provincial Court, you will be asked whether you plead guilty or not guilty. If you plead not guilty, the judge will set a date for your trial.
If you plead guilty, the next step is sentencing.
8. Preliminary Inquiry
If you choose to be tried in B.C. Supreme Court, you may have a “preliminary hearing” in Provincial Court. At the hearing, the Crown will have its witnesses give testimony about the event. Your lawyer – or you, if you don’t have a lawyer – will have a chance to cross-examine each witness. This is a chance to ask questions to test the truthfulness and memory of the witness. At the end of the hearing, the judge will decide if there is enough evidence to send you to trial in the BC Supreme Court.
If there isn’t enough evidence, you will be discharged. That means that the matter will be ended.
If you choose to go to trial in Provincial Court, you will want to start preparing for trial. You may wish to call witnesses to testify on your behalf. If you do, you must make sure that they come to court on the day of the trial. You can ask them to come to court, or you can obtain subpoenas from a justice of the peace at the court registry. A subpoena is a court order requiring a witness who has material evidence to come to court.
The Crown prosecutor’s job is to prove that you’re guilty of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. As an accused person, you don’t have to prove that you’re innocent of the charges. You don’t have to give any evidence or call any witnesses at your trial. However, you may decide that it’s in your best interests to do so, especially if the Crown appears to have a strong case against you. If you have a lawyer, he or she will advise you, but it’s up to you to decide.
It is the judge’s responsibility to make sure you have a fair trial and that all of your rights are protected.
If you plead guilty or are found guilty by the judge after a trial, you will be sentenced. In determining your sentence, the judge will consider all of the information he or she has about you and the crime, both positive and negative. This includes:
- Your personal situation (your age, whether you work or go to school, your family situation);
- The nature of the charge(s);
- The way the crime was committed;
- Your criminal record, if you have one;
- Victim impact statements; and
- Any other relevant information.
The judge may ask for a pre-sentence report to be prepared. This is a report to the judge by a probation officer who will interview you, people who know you, and any victims of the crime(s). The report will make recommendations for sentencing, particularly if there are specific programs that would help you. The judge will decide whether or not to follow the recommendations.
11. Types of Sentences
The possible sentences the judge could pass include:
Absolute Discharge – You don’t receive any fine or sentence, and there is no criminal record.
Conditional Discharge – You are placed on probation for a certain length of time, during which you have to follow certain conditions (rules). These could include:
- paying restitution,
- working community service hours,
- having no contact with certain people, and
- taking specific programs.
After the probation period is over and you’ve met all of the conditions, the discharge becomes complete, which means that you will have no criminal record.
Suspended Sentence and Probation– This often includes a condition that you report to a Probation Officer immediately and then again as often as the officer tells you. Some other conditions may include:
- an alcohol or drug assessment and/or treatment,
- taking programs for anger management or domestic violence,
- not using alcohol or drugs,
- not contacting certain people or being at certain places, and
- any other conditions that are appropriate to the crime and your situation.
Fine – If you are given a fine, you will be given time in which to pay it. If it is not paid within that time, you could end up in custody or be unable to renew your driver’s licence.
Conditional Sentence – This is where you serve your time in custody within the community. If you don’t follow the conditions the judge orders, you may end up serving your time in custody.
Custodial Sentence – This where you serve a period of time in jail - either a provincial correctional centre or a federal penitentiary.
When you are sentenced, the court registry must add a surcharge – or fee – that goes toward helping victims of crime.
See the Sentencing Fact Sheet for more information on types of sentences.
Q. How are people charged with offences brought to court?
If you are charged with an offence you may receive a summons, ordering you to appear in court at a specified time and place. When someone is arrested, a police officer may give them an appearance notice or a promise to appear requiring them to attend court at a later date. A justice of the peace or judge may also issue a warrant requiring police to arrest a person and bring them to court.
Q. What will happen if a person does not appear in court as required?
If a person fails to appear in court after receiving a summons, appearance notice, or a promise to appear, a judge may issue a warrant for their arrest. They may also be charged with a criminal offence for failing to attend court, and if found guilty, they could be fined or imprisoned.
Q. What happens on a person's first appearance in Provincial Court?
When a person charged with an offence appears in court for the first time, they will be given information about the evidence against them and the sentence Crown counsel (the prosecuting lawyer) would suggest to the judge if they were to plead guilty.
An accused person may consult Legal Aid Duty Counsel or a lawyer of their own choice before entering a plea. If an accused person intends to plead not guilty, a trial date may be set for a future date. Anyone who pleads guilty at the first court appearance may be sentenced on that day, or a future date for sentencing may be set.
Q. How is bail decided?
A person arrested and charged with an offence is entitled to a bail hearing (also called a judicial interim release hearing). At that hearing a judicial justice or judge will decide whether it is necessary to detain them in custody based on criteria and rules set out in s. 515 of the Criminal Code. In most cases, people charged with criminal offences have the right to be released unless the Crown (the prosecutor) establishes that they should be detained in jail until their trial in order to ensure their attendance at trial or to protect the public. If the Crown does not establish grounds for detention the person must be released on a bail order with or without cash deposit or surety (a person who guarantees the accused person’s good behaviour). The bail order may contain rules such as a curfew, an area restriction, a residence requirement possibly including a residential substance abuse treatment centre, firearms and weapons prohibitions, and restrictions on contact with a victim.
In some cases Crown counsel and the person arrested agree on the terms of release and a justice of the peace releases the person on those terms without a hearing in court.
Q. How does a criminal trial proceed in Provincial Court?
The Crown is required to prove a criminal charge “beyond a reasonable doubt”. To do this the prosecutor (called Crown counsel, or "the Crown") will call witnesses to testify and say what they know about the matter.
A witness must swear a religious oath or make a non-religious solemn affirmation before testifying. When children testify they simply promise to tell the truth.
After Crown counsel asks each witness questions, the defendant (or their lawyer if they have one) may question the witness (“cross examination”) on matters they consider helpful. After all Crown witnesses have been heard, the defendant may testify and call witnesses, but is not obliged to do either. Crown counsel may cross examine each defence witness, including the defendant, after the defendant or defence counsel questions them.
The evidence in the trial consists of the witnesses’ testimony and any photographs, documents or other items adequately identified by a witness and ruled admissible by the judge. After all the evidence has been heard, both Crown and defence sum up their positions in closing argument. The judge then decides whether the evidence is sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
If the accused is convicted (found guilty), the judge will impose a sentence after hearing submissions from both Crown and defence about what sentence is appropriate.
Register your maintenance order
If someone has been ordered to pay you maintenance (financial support) for yourself (spousal maintenance) or a child you can register your court order with the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program (FMEP). Then, if support isn`t paid, FMEP will take action to enforce the order and collect the money you are owed. FMEP is a free, voluntary program that monitors and enforces maintenance orders. If you don`t register your order, you may still take steps to enforce your order, but you won`t have as many remedies available as FMEP does.
Court action to collect unpaid maintenance
The FMEP or a person entitled to receive maintenance payments (the recipient) may ask the Provincial Court to enforce arrears (collect unpaid maintenance payments) owing under a child or spousal support order. If you have registered your order with FMEP, they will act for you or you can obtain written permission from FMEP to make a court application yourself.
Most applications to enforce arrears will involve the BC Family Maintenance Enforcement Act. The most common forms of enforcement action taken under this Act in Provincial Court are the default hearing and the committal hearing.
At a default hearing the FMEP or recipient must first prove the amount of arrears that are owing. Then the payor (the person ordered by a court to pay maintenance to contribute to the support of a child or spouse) must give evidence about their finances to prove that they are not able to pay all the arrears at once. If a payor can show this, the judge will consider what they can or should be able to pay, and usually order them to pay a certain amount towards the arrears each month on top of ongoing support payments.
In some circumstances a judge will also order that a payor may be imprisoned for up to 90 days for each missed payment. However, committal to jail is usually not automatic when a payment is missed. Instead, it is decided in a second hearing, called a “committal hearing”.
A committal hearing is held when a payor fails to make arrears payments required by a court order and the order provides jail time for any missed payment. Unless the payor satisfies the judge that:
- they have made the missed payments; or
- a change of circumstances since the order was made makes them unable to pay; or
- imprisoning them would be a grave injustice;
the judge must order their imprisonment. Being sent (committed) to jail does not mean that payment of the maintenance is excused, however. Ongoing monthly support and arrears payments must still be paid.
FMEP enforcement action outside court
The Act gives FMEP the power to take steps outside court to enforce payment of maintenance orders. FMEP can attach (garnish) wages or other money owed to a payor, prevent the payor from renewing their driver’s licence or motor vehicle licence, prevent them from obtaining a passport, or register a charge on land they own.
Read the answer above about how the Court can enforce an unpaid maintenance order.
Get legal advice
The sooner you talk to a lawyer about any problems you may be having with a support order, the better. If you are unable to pay arrears or have been summonsed to a committal hearing you should definitely consult a lawyer or the Family Court duty counsel.
These resources can help you find free or low cost legal advice if you cannot afford a lawyer.
Changing the maintenance order
If you are a payor whose circumstances have worsened since you were ordered to pay support in Provincial Court and you can’t pay for a good reason, you may wish to ask a judge to change or cancel the maintenance order and/or to cancel or reduce maintenance arrears that have built up. To do this, you file a form called an Application Respecting Existing Orders or Agreements and a sworn Financial Statement with supporting financial records such as tax returns and bank statements. You must deliver (serve) copies of these documents to the person to whom support must be paid and to FMEP.
Be aware that the law says support orders can be changed if changed circumstances justify it, but that arrears can only be reduced or cancelled if it would be “grossly unfair not to do so”. It is therefore important to apply to change an order if you are truly unable to pay for an extended period rather than ignore it and let arrears mount up.
Challenging FMEP enforcement actions taken outside court
If you are a maintenance payor and you have issues with enforcement actions taken outside court by FMEP, you may be able to ask a judge to review those actions.
In most cases, your first step is to contact FMEP to explain your circumstances, ask them to change their enforcement actions, and provide any financial or medical documents they may request. The Act specifically requires that you first contact FMEP to request a release of any hold on your driver’s licence or motor vehicle licence, the setting aside of a notice of attachment, or a change in the amount being taken by a notice of attachment. If you haven`t done this the Court will likely not be able to deal with your case.
In fact, it is always a good idea to contact your FMEP enforcement officer before going to court because you may be able to reach an agreement without having to go to court.
If you can`t reach an agreement with FMEP, then you can apply to court to challenge certain FMEP enforcement actions by filing a Notice of Motion in Maintenance Enforcement Proceedings, and delivering a copy of your Notice to FMEP. In some cases, you will need to support your application with a Statement of Finances form, plus the supporting financial documents listed on page 1 of the form.
The Statement of Finances must be sworn to be true before a lawyer, notary or a commissioner for taking affidavits. This can be done at a court registry as long as you provide proper picture identification. You can deliver your application to FMEP by fax or mail. Contact FMEP to get their fax number or mailing address.
An application to challenge FMEP enforcement actions can be made in Provincial Court even if the maintenance order was made by the Supreme Court. However, the Provincial Court does not have the power to interfere with certain forms of FMEP enforcement. For instance, if FMEP is blocking your application for a passport you can only challenge their action using a special application (called “judicial review”) in the Supreme Court of BC. You should get legal advice for help with such an application because it is complicated.
Remember that a challenge of FMEP enforcement action does not mean that the maintenance order will be changed, so if you want your order changed you must also file the Application Respecting Existing Orders or Agreements.
Q. Why do judges give "light" sentences?
These comments cannot be used as legal advice or authority in court or other legal proceedings. They are intended as general information about sentencing for criminal offences.
Judges generally live in the communities in which they preside. Many of them have been victims of crime along with their neighbours. It would be wrong to assume that judges are removed from the experiences and concerns of our society, or that they have any inherent motivation that is different from that of other members of the community. Judges not only want to see justice done, they are required to impose it and are governed by the rule of law. They also care passionately about justice and about performing their duties conscientiously, fairly and responsibly. Of the hundreds of sentences imposed in B.C. courts every day, each one is based upon the judge's full consideration of the relevant legal principles and an assessment of the appropriate range of sentence for the applicable offence.
Limits on sentencing discretion - Criminal Code principles
When deciding the appropriate sentence, a judge is governed by the sentencing principles set out in Part XXIII of the Criminal Code, and by applicable case law (sentencing decisions of appeal courts in similar cases). The Criminal Code principles require the judge to consider the circumstances of the offence and the offender, any aggravating or mitigating circumstances, other similar cases, and to decide what sentence would best achieve the objectives of denunciation, deterrence, protection of the public, rehabilitation, reparation, responsibility, and respect for the law. It also requires that a sentence be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender, and similar to sentences imposed for similar offenders who commit similar offences in similar circumstances. In addition, the Criminal Code says an offender should not be deprived of liberty if less restrictive sanctions may be appropriate. Finally, the Criminal Code requires that before imposing a jail sentence a judge must consider all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances.
The balancing of all these factors means that a sentence is not dictated by any one factorat the expense of the others. For example, a judge must balance the need to rehabilitate an offender with the need to deter him or her and others from committing offences. In every sentencing decision the Judge has discretion, but that discretion may only be used within the limits set by Parliament and interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada and the B.C. Court of Appeal.
Importance of Judicial Independence
Parliament makes the law. Judges apply the law with all of the above factors in mind. Indeed, they are governed by the rule of law, and they function separately from the other two branches of government, the legislative and the executive. This separation, or independence, is one of the true strengths of our democratic system of government. It means that judges may be trusted to apply the laws fairly and without bias to each party before them, even when one of those parties is another branch of government (as in criminal cases where the Crown counsel represents the Attorney General or Minister of Justice, and child protection cases where the Director of Child, Family and Community Service is a party).
Other limits on sentencing discretion - statutory maximums
The Criminal Code of Canada and other criminal laws provide for maximum sentences ranging from six months to life imprisonment depending upon the nature of the offence. For some charges (known as “hybrid”) the Crown (prosecutor) chooses whether to proceed “by indictment” or “summarily”. This choice affects whether an accused person is able to choose to be tried in Supreme Court rather than Provincial Court. The Crown’s choice also affects the maximum sentence a judge may impose, since there are higher penalties for indictable than for summary conviction offences. For example, when the Crown chooses to proceed summarily with an offence like auto theft, the maximum jail sentence available is 18 months, while it is 10 years if the Crown proceeds by indictment.
Types of sentence
Sentencing options provided by the Criminal Code are conditional and absolute discharges, suspended sentences with probation, fines, conditional sentence orders, and imprisonment. In many of these sentences, rules (often called “terms” or “conditions”) may be imposed on the offender, including curfews, area restrictions, community work service, restitution, drug and alcohol counseling or treatment, and other measures designed to achieve the goals of sentencing. See the Sentencing Fact Sheet for more information on types of sentences.
If people continue to commit criminal offences, they often receive successively longer jail sentences, within the limits that the law prescribes. The Crown may also apply to have indeterminate (indefinite) sentences imposed on people convicted of serious personal injury offences, in certain circumstances. There are also provision for minimum sentencing and long term supervision of long-term offenders in Part XXIV of the Criminal Code.
Victim impact statement
The sentencing objective of reparation, which addresses harm done to the victim or the community, means that the degree of harm is relevant to a sentence. The Criminal Code provides that a judge must consider a victim impact statement describing the harm suffered by the victim when a victim chooses to write one. For more on Victim Impact Statements, see Victim Impact Statement .
Sentencing is an inexact process, but in our democratic society, we have adopted principles of fairness and balance in the treatment of offenders that may result in sentences less severe than would be the case if the sentence were dictated by only one factor. By law, judges must assess the case before them based upon the applicable law and the individual circumstances of the offence and the offender, in a way that is consistent with the treatment of other similar cases. Judges engage in the balancing process described above, and sentences imposed in all criminal cases are the result of that balancing process, yielding the sentence the judge considers will best achieve the many goals listed above within the parameters of the applicable laws.
Sentences are often criticized as overly lenient.
In the United Kingdom, where the law and range of sentences is similar to that in Canada, a public panel assists in an advisory capacity regarding sentencing. The Sentencing Council's website has examples of focus groups faced with fact patterns of actual cases. These groups tend to underestimate the sentence actually imposed by a judge and to say that they themselves would impose a sentence lower than the actual sentence. This may be an indication that the public perception of sentencing as "light" does not necessarily reflect the reality. One reason for this could be that media accounts of court proceedings cannot fully capture all of the factors that a judge must consider when imposing sentence.
"Justice occurred in hundreds of cases today" is not a story. The almost 100,000 unremarkable criminal cases dealt with annually by the Provincial Court are not newsworthy. Yet, many members of the public rely primarily on the media for their information about the court system. Years ago, the courts in Britain relied upon newspapers to report cases for use as precedents. They used to publish the full judgment word for word, and lawyers and judges used those reports as legal authority. For various reasons, today’s media generally do not report court proceedings in such detail.
Media reports rarely include all the details of the offender and the offence considered by a judge. They may also not include all aspects of the sentence actually imposed, such as credit for pre-trial custody. Repeat offenders are often denied bail and detained in jail before their trial, so they may spend a significant period of time in pre-trial custody. The Criminal Code requires judges to deduct pre-trial custody from an appropriate sentence. Sometimes a sentence is reported as “one day” or "time served," reflecting the fact that the offender has fully served the appropriate jail time before conviction. Another sentence might be phrased as three months in jail with credit for six months time served, yielding an effective sentence of nine months. If this is reported as a three month sentence the impression is misleading.
It is also sometimes difficult for reporters to know exactly what offence an offender is being sentenced for. Although auto theft may have been the original charge, sometimes an offender is found guilty, or agrees with the prosecutor to plead guilty, to another less serious charge (perhaps mischief or taking an auto without consent) because of problems in proving the original charge. Less serious charges often have lower sentence ranges so the sentence will be less severe than it would have been for the original charge.
Reporting the type of charge and sentence alone do not tell you about any of the aggravating or mitigating factors, the background of the offender, the legal principles that apply, or indeed, the sentencing guidelines that may have been applicable. And few of us would want to see ourselves tried in the media and sentenced based upon public opinion as reported in the media rather than based upon the full range of factors a judge is required to consider. It is very important to our fair and independent system of justice that courts be permitted to operate fully, and that those charged not be judged by others based only upon a few sensational facts or inflammatory statements by observers, without the dispassionate eye of an independent state-appointed jurist schooled in the applicable laws and legal principles. And it is equally important that outcomes be predictable, based on the evidence and on prior cases, not dependent upon opinions formed without all of the relevant information.
In many cases, judges take pains to provide detailed explanations of the reasons for their decisions. Checking Judgments & Decisions and reading those reasons will enable you to form an informed opinion about a judge’s decision.
There is an appeal system which entails scrutiny of the trial judge’s decision by an appellate judge or judges in light of the appropriate legal principles. In some cases there can be further appeals of the appellate court’s decision. A wrongful acquittal or a sentence that is considered too lenient may be appealed by the Crown (prosecutor), who represents the public in the court process, just as the accused may appeal conviction or sentence. The fact that only a very small number of the total criminal cases dealt with by the trial courts are appealed, and that an even smaller number are overturned on appeal, indicates that most court decisions are accepted as appropriate and correct by the Crown (acting on behalf of the public) and by the appellate courts.
In imposing sentence, judges are required by law to be consistent with other decisions in similar cases. If the range of cases dealing with a particular offence sets a five year jail sentence at the top end of the range, a judge would be wrong to decide that an offender should be incarcerated for much longer. Such a decision, if outside the range set by similar cases, would be reversed on appeal. Similarly, a sentence that is below the range set by relevant cases could be appealed by the Crown and would likely be increased. If sentences in a particular region were perceived by the Crown to be significantly different from those in other regions, and this difference was not justified by factors relevant to that community, such sentences could be appealed, and/or the Crown could seek to show in future cases, through a survey of relevant cases presented to the Court, that the range should be higher.
See the Sentencing Fact Sheet for more information on types of sentences.
A discharge is a form of sentence in which the offender may avoid having a conviction recorded in a criminal record if they follow any conditions (rules) imposed by the judge for a specified period of time. A person may receive a discharge when they are previously of good character and the offence is considered to be out of character for them. The law requires that it be in the best interests of the offender, and not contrary to the public interest, for the offender not to receive a criminal record. For example, a minor theft case may result in a conditional discharge for a first offender, particularly if there are compassionate circumstances or psychological factors involved.
The conditions of a conditional discharge may be identical to those of a suspended sentence or a conditional sentence of imprisonment. While a person who is granted a conditional discharge does not have a criminal conviction on their record, the existence of the discharge could be placed before the Court if there were future convictions.
Conditional sentence order
Parliament has dictated that imprisonment of any kind is a last resort, so there must be a serious offence, aggravating features, or a criminal history before a sentence of imprisonment is imposed. It is up to the prosecutor to prove that there are aggravating factors in a given case. If the Crown establishes that the offence is one for which a sentence of imprisonment for less than two years is appropriate, the judge is then directed by law to consider whether the sentence may be served in the community as a conditional sentence. The Criminal Code states that this may occur where doing so does not endanger the safety of the community, and is consistent with the fundamental principles of sentencing set out in the Criminal Code. Those principles include the fundamental purpose of contributing, along with crime prevention initiatives, to respect for the law and the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society by imposing just sanctions.
Conditional sentences are jail sentences served in the community. They generally contain significant restrictions on the liberty of the offender, and can even be more onerous than a jail sentence because conditional sentences tend to be longer than jail sentences for equivalent offences. Conditional sentence orders will contain rules, often including house arrest or curfews, reporting to a supervisor, and rehabilitative terms like residential substance abuse treatment or participation in programs that might not be available or required in jail. People serving conditional sentences are also frequently required to do something to "pay back" the community, such as community work service, restitution, and other kinds of reparation. The Criminal Code sees these sentences as a category of imprisonment, and penal in nature. If a person disobeys a conditional sentence order they are arrested, and may be required to serve the remainder of the sentence in jail.
See the Sentencing Fact Sheet for more information on types of sentences.
Do Aboriginals get "lighter" sentences?
When aboriginal offenders are sentenced, a judge must consider some factors that are different from those considered for other offenders. Although this may sometimes cause an aboriginal offender’s sentence to be reduced, that is not necessarily the case.
All sentences are based on a judge’s full consideration of the relevant legal principles and the appropriate range of sentence for the offence. When determining an appropriate sentence, a judge is governed by Part XXIII of the Criminal Code, which sets out principles for sentencing, and by case law. Section s. 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code requires that judges must consider all available sentences other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances, and they must pay particular attention to the circumstances of aboriginal offenders.
This section was interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Gladue,  1 S.C.R. 688. The Court said that Parliament included s. 718.2(e) in the Criminal Code in an effort to reduce the overrepresentation of aboriginal peoples within both the Canadian prison population and the criminal justice system in general. For example, in 1994, aboriginal persons represented 2% of Canada’s population, but they represented 10.6% of the prison population. This was a serious problem, which unfortunately has not changed. The Court also recognized that aboriginal offenders have unique circumstances that may make imprisonment a less appropriate or less useful sanction.
The Court concluded that when sentencing an Aboriginal offender, a judge must consider:
- the unique systemic or background factors which may have played a part in bringing the particular aboriginal offender before the courts; and
- the types of sentencing procedures and sanctions that may be appropriate for the offender because of his or her particular aboriginal connection or heritage.
In R. v. Ipeelee, 2012 SCC 13 the Supreme Court provided trial judges with more guidance on how to apply those factors. The Court said that judges must consider the systemic and background factors affecting aboriginal people in Canadian society, such as the history of colonialism, displacement, and residential schools, and how that history continues to translate into lower educational attainment, lower incomes, higher unemployment, higher rates of substance abuse and suicide, and higher levels of incarceration for aboriginal peoples. The Court said that these factors on their own do not necessarily justify a different or lower sentence for aboriginal offenders, but they provide a necessary context for the judge to consider all of the other sentencing factors specific to an offender.
The Court said that both defence and Crown counsel have a duty to provide the sentencing judge with information relevant to these factors, and if they don’t, the judge has a responsibility to obtain the information before sentencing any aboriginal offender. If a judge does not consider the Gladue factors when sentencing an aboriginal offender, the sentence can be appealed. However, aboriginal offenders may waive their rights to have Gladue evidence presented, and such decisions will be respected.
Information relevant to the Gladue factors is often presented in a “Gladue report”, which is a form of pre-sentence report tailored to the specific circumstances of aboriginal offenders. Gladue reports must, at a minimum, meet the following criteria:
- present accurate facts which will assist the court to have the fullest picture of the offender possible
- when possible, corroborate or verify assertions of interviewees with written sources such as police reports, school records, prior statements, or through other people
- as far as possible, not elicit information from interviewees by leading questions
- reference accurately sourced statements
- identify any assumptions made by the author
- not advocate on behalf of the offender.
- (R. v. Florence, 2013 BCSC 194).
These reports are intended to provide a sentencing judge with individualized information about how intergenerational and systemic effects of colonialism, displacement, residential schools, poverty, unemployment and substance abuse have affected an aboriginal offender. They should also include information about realistic restorative or rehabilitative programs available for the offender (R. v. Lawson, 2012 BCCA 508). A Gladue report must be balanced and objective in the same way that regular pre-sentence reports are. Therefore, a Gladue report writer should remain detached and not advance personal opinions, or strongly recommend specific sentences.
Pre-sentence reports, including Gladue reports, help judges to craft the most appropriate sentence possible for each offender. Although judges must take the Gladue factors into account for aboriginal offenders, in addition to the usual sentencing factors, this does not mean that aboriginal offenders will automatically get lighter sentences. It simply means that aboriginal offenders have unique circumstances that judges may not be aware of, so judges need additional information to ensure that they give aboriginal offenders the most appropriate sentence possible.
See the Sentencing Fact Sheet for information about the different types of sentences provided by the Criminal Code.
Q.I don’t understand all the words used in court. Where can I find explanations of legal terms?
There is a helpful glossary with definitions of words and phrases used in court and legal documents on the New Brunswick Courts’ website. See also B.C. Government Laws - FAQ and definitions of common legal terms.
Q. If I do not have a lawyer, can the judge help me present my case?
Judges are not substitute lawyers. Judges are, however, responsible for ensuring that the proceedings are fair, and to that end, they may give an unrepresented person guidance or direction on procedural and other matters. This is a very limited kind of guidance because the judge must remain impartial and cannot favour one side over another. Judges cannot give you legal advice, present your case for you, or help you even the score with the other side.
Q. I want my trial adjourned (put off to a later date). Should I wait until my next court date to ask for this?
Adjournments are not automatic. You must apply for them, and the Court has authority to grant or deny your application. It is important not to wait until the last minute to apply for an adjournment. The longer you wait, the greater the likelihood that other parties or persons will be inconvenienced or put to extra expense, which is a factor weighing against your application. Last minute adjournments may also result in wasted court time, something the Court works hard to avoid.
Q. When is a mistrial declared?
A mistrial is declared when the way in which a trial has proceeded results in the judge or jury being unable to render a decision. The declaring of a mistrial is a discretionary decision on the part of the presiding judge based upon what the interests of justice may require. It can occur when a significant conflict for one of the parties or the judge comes to light after the trial has begun, or where for some reason there is irreparable prejudice to the interests of one of the parties or to the fairness of the trial. It also occurs as a matter of law when a jury is unable to decide the case, or is "hung."
In any case where a mistrial has been declared, the trial may commence again. In a criminal matter the question of whether there will be another trial will be decided by the Crown (prosecutor).
Q. Are the results of polygraph (lie-detector) tests admissible in court?
As a general rule, the results of a polygraph are not admissible in court proceedings, on the grounds that evidence of this type may not supersede the role of the court to decide the credibility of a witness. This was decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Beland & Phillips . The rule is strictly applied in criminal cases, but exceptions are sometimes made in family court matters - for example, where a parent accused of abusing a child passes a polygraph. In a case like that the trial judge will assess all the circumstances and apply the law of evidence in order to decide whether the polygraph should be admitted as evidence.
While police officers may rely upon such tools to assist them in an investigation, polygraphs operate on the basis that the person is conscious of what is true and what is not, and that a person will react differently when telling a lie from when telling the truth. Testimony in court is often not so simple as “a lie” or “the truth”. A person’s ability to observe, record, retain, recall and articulate (that is, put the recollection into words) may affect their testimony. There is sometimes a tendency to "fill in the gaps" in one’s memory, often without being conscious of doing this. In such a case, a witness could give a sincere, but inaccurate, description of what happened.
Witnesses may also perceive or "see" an event differently. For example, a Canucks fan may tend to "see" the calls made against the other team more than the calls made against the Canucks. A fan of the other side would have a different point of view and might have a different recollection of the competence or fairness of the officiating.
The polygraph presumes that a person who is lying will have an elevated level of anxiety and exhibit physical symptoms like sweating, increased blood pressure or breathing or heart rates. A sincere but inaccurate or unreliable witness would not believe that what he or she was saying was false so would not react physically like a person who was intentionally and consciously deceiving. The polygraph operator would report that the witness was truthful. A psychopath, having no conscience, might not be anxious and might produce inconclusive results on a polygraph. The reliability and accuracy of a polygraph will also be dependent on the expertise of the person administering the test.
In court an expert might testify as to the scientific basis of the polygraph and to its validity in detecting liars. Once science has pronounced a witness to be truthful, then the judge or jury may tend to accept that witness' testimony without considering whether, in spite of the sincerity of the witness and the expert testimony, there are other factors that may affect the witness's reliability or accuracy. In this way, polygraph evidence may introduce a potential for prejudice which would outweigh its value in assisting the judge or jury to come to a just conclusion.
Judicial Case Managers (JCMs) are Justices of the Peace with duties and powers authorized by the Chief Judge. They preside in Initial Appearance and Assignment Courts as Justices under the Criminal Code of Canada.
JCM’s are responsible and accountable for providing effective, efficient court scheduling and coordination of all matters in Provincial Court. JCMs schedule, monitor and manage most adult criminal, youth court, family, and small claims matters that will be heard by a Provincial Court Judge.
Respect for court processes is maintained by the behaviour of everyone at a proceeding. Just like Judges, Judicial Justices and Justice of the Peace Adjudicators, Judicial Case Managers are judicial officers who carry out the Court’s daily work. Here are some tips on conduct and etiquette when appearing before a Judicial Case Manager:
- Be neatly dressed in clothing that is appropriate to wear at an office workplace. For lawyers business attire is appropriate.
- Address the Judicial Case Manager as “Your Worship”.
- Unless you have mobility issues, please stand when the Judicial Case Manager enters or leaves the courtroom, and when you speak to the Judicial Case Manager or they speak to you.
- When you speak start by introducing yourself and spell your last name slowly. For example, ‘Your Worship my name is Jane Smith, spelled S-M-I-T-H. I am the [applicant representing myself, lawyer for…].”
- Ensure that all your communications are polite and respectful, and speak loudly enough to be heard by the Judicial Case Manager and the parties.
- While the Judicial Case Manager is speaking or being spoken to please do not have side conversations – they can interfere with people’s ability to hear what is being said.
- Check in with the sheriff and wait in the courtroom until your name or matter is called. Do not interrupt to try and have your matter heard ahead of others. If you are late or need to leave for any reason you can let the sheriff know so the sheriff can pass on that information at an appropriate time.
- If the matter is to be heard by way of video, stand where the Judicial Case Manager can see you while you are speaking to your matter.
- Please be aware of the Policy on Use of Electronic Devices in Courtrooms. In a courtroom or Initial Appearance Room only accredited media or lawyers may use electronic devices to transmit and receive text, and then only in a discreet manner that does not generate sound and does not interfere with the proceedings.
- Once a Judicial Case Manager has made a decision do not continue arguing the matter in court. Speak to duty counsel or attend at the registry if you have further questions.
In smaller courthouses around the province where there is no Judicial Case Manager, Justices of the Peace preside in Initial Appearance Rooms. These tips apply equally to appearances before a Justice of the Peace.
JCM’s schedule most court appearances expected to take longer than 20 or 30 minutes, generally including:
- trials and hearings
- preliminary inquiries
- longer bail hearings
- continuations of trials
- matters a particular judge is seized with (required by law to hear)
- Family Case Conferences and Small Claims Settlement Conferences
- any longer matter that requires time before a judge
Court registries schedule the first court appearance in any type of matter, but once a first appearance has been scheduled, a JCM takes over managing, monitoring and scheduling the case. In some courthouses the court registry also schedules Small Claims Settlement Conferences and Family Case Conferences based on available time information provided by the JCM.
A JCM will generally schedule a trial or hearing after you go to court one or more times. In criminal and youth court matters, there will be an “arraignment event” after the prosecutor has given full particulars of the charge(s) to the accused person and the prosecutor and the defence lawyer have discussed the matter.
An “arraignment event” is a court appearance where the accused person (or their defence lawyer if they have one) and the prosecutor say they are ready to set a date for trial and say how long they think the trial will take. At an arraignment event the JCM may ask how many witnesses will testify during the trial and whether there are any issues under the Charter of Rights. They use this information to make the most accurate time estimate possible for the trial. The JCM will then set the trial date or tell you where to go to do this.
In Small Claims court, most matters are set for trial after a settlement conference or trial preparation conference where settlement is not reached. The conference judge will estimate the length of the trial and send the parties to arrange a trial date with the JCM.
For family cases, most hearings are set after a family case conference in which all the issues are not resolved, or after you appear before a judge in a courtroom.
Many courthouses have a JCM or Trial Scheduler you can see in person to set your trial date. Some courthouses don’t have a JCM present every day, so you may have to return on another day or telephone the JCM to arrange your trial date. Refer to Court Locations for contact information for JCMs.
The length of your trial depends on several things, including:
- whether you will or will not have a lawyer represent you
- how many witnesses will testify in the trial
- whether you or witnesses have language difficulties and whether an interpreter is required
- whether there are issues under the Charter of Rights in criminal cases
- whether there are issues about whether proposed evidence can be admitted in the trial
- how complex your case is.
For criminal matters, the JCM will ask the accused person (or their defence lawyer if they have one) and the prosecutor questions at the arraignment event including how long they think the trial will take.
For Small Claims and family matters, a judge will normally ask questions at the settlement conference or family case conference and estimate how long the trial should take.
No, trial dates can’t be set online in BC.
To ensure fairness in all trials, the Provincial Court controls the assignment of judges to cases. If you genuinely believe that a judge assigned to hear your case would not be able to do that fairly and neutrally, you may ask the judge to disqualify him or herself. However, the law only allows a judge to do this if they are satisfied that there is a reasonable apprehension they are biased for or against one of the parties involved in the lawsuit.
An application for disqualification is made in open court and on the record. The person making the application must provide reasons why the judge should not hear the case, and the other party has the right to reply. The test for disqualification is whether an informed, reasonable and right-minded person would think it more likely than not that the judge, either consciously or unconsciously, would not decide fairly.
The time required to obtain a hearing in Provincial Court depends on a number of things, including:
- the estimated length of the hearing
- the number of cases in a particular courthouse relative to the number of judges, court staff, sheriffs and courtrooms available
- the type and complexity of the trial
- time-related legal requirements
- the availability of lawyers and witnesses.
In scheduling cases, the Court recognizes that every case deserves to be heard in as timely a manner as possible, but it must give priority to urgent cases, such as child protection matters or serious criminal cases.
Trials are scheduled in the same way in each court location. However, in seven of the busier courthouses in the province (Abbotsford, Kelowna, Port Coquitlam, Surrey, 222 Main St. and Robson Square in Vancouver, and Victoria) trials are scheduled to either an Assignment Court list or a Summary Proceedings Court (SPC).
Generally, trials estimated to require more than a half-day of court time are scheduled to an Assignment Court list. Parties and their lawyers must attend Assignment Court at 9:00 AM (or 1:30 PM for the afternoon) on the day of the trial. In Assignment Court, the JCM assesses the parties’ readiness for trial and assigns each case to a trial courtroom.
Matters estimated to take a half day of court time or less for trial or hearing and criminal matters designated by Crown Counsel (the prosecutor) as SPC matters are scheduled in Summary Proceedings Court.
In all other Provincial courthouses in BC that do not operate Assignment and Summary Proceedings Courts, the JCM schedules trials and hearings to trial courtrooms and monitors them continuously up to and on the day of trial in order to make any scheduling changes required by changes in time estimates .
To check court operating hours in your courthouse see BC Provincial Court Locations and Hours.
Q. What is a subpoena or a summons to a witness?
These are court orders that require you to come to court at a specified time and place in order to testify as a witness in a trial or hearing, and to remain there until excused by the judge. They may also require you to bring with you documents or other evidence in your possession or under your control.
Q. Do I have to attend court if I receive a subpoena or summons to a witness?
A subpoena is a court order compelling a person to attend court to give evidence. If you do not attend, you may be arrested. If you do not think that you have any material evidence to give, or you believe that the issuance of the subpoena is an abuse of process, you may make an application to the court to set it aside.
Q. If I am a victim of a crime and am required to attend court as a witness, what should I do?
The following links provide useful information, as well as pamphlets available in French, Chinese and Punjabi:
Victims and Witnesses of Crime and Violence - BC Ministry of Justice – information to help with legal questions and emotional effects of crime
Victims of Crime - Government of Canada - wide-ranging information and assistance including rights, roles, services, bail, trials, sentencing, parole
Q. I don’t understand all the words used in legal documents. Where can I find explanations of legal terms?
There is a helpful glossary with definitions of words and phrases used in court and legal documents on the New Brunswick Courts’ website. You will also find definitions at B.C. Government Laws - FAQ and definitions of common legal terms.
Q. Do I need a lawyer to represent me in Provincial Court?
You can act for yourself in any matter in Provincial Court. However, depending on the circumstances of your case, it may be a good idea to either have a lawyer represent you, or consult with a lawyer before you appear in court. This is especially important if your matter is very serious or complicated. Many litigants in Provincial Court do a good job on their own; people who are organized and have put a lot of work into researching and preparing their case do better than those who do not. For help, see Going to Court and Preparing for Court as well as the page and links for the type of case you are involved in.
If you have received a discharge for an offence or a pardon or record suspension your criminal record may be sealed so it cannot be accessed. There are two ways you can apply to have it unsealed in order to make a Waiver Application to enter the US.
1. Appear in person with government-issued photo identification at the Registry (the records office) of a courthouse where you received your sentence and request copies of your sealed Court documents. Find the location of all Provincial courthouses in BC at http://www.ag.gov.bc.ca/courts/overview/locations/.
2. If you can’t get to that Court Registry, you may apply to the Office of the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court by mailing these documents:
If an organization is acting on your behalf, they must provide authorization signed by you and stating that you have consented to their making an application for you.
All documents must be received by mail (not by email or fax) at this address:
Note: this process applies only to convictions in the British Columbia Provincial Court.
When an Application to unseal a criminal record is made to the Office of the Chief Judge, what happens next?
If the application and supporting documents are complete, they will be put before a judge and the unsealing order will be signed. The order and supporting documents will then be sent to the Court Registry where the court file is held, and Registry staff will unseal and mail the records to you or the organization representing you.
If the application and supporting documents are not complete, or if there is a reason that the application cannot be granted, the applicant will receive a letter explaining this and the application and supporting documents will be returned.
How do I access other court records?
How do I access files at the Supreme Court of British Columbia?
The Provincial Court is separate from the Supreme Court of British Columbia. If you are seeking access to a Supreme Court file, or to unseal your record of sentences in that court, see the BC Supreme Court’s “Court Record Access Policy”.
Q. How do I apply for a position within the Provincial Court?
If you are interested in applying for a staff position within the Provincial Court, please check the BC Government Job Postings. If you are applying to become a Judge or Judicial Justice, please refer to the Appointment Process for that office described on our website.
Q. Can a judge or judicial justice perform marriage ceremonies?
As a general rule, judges and judicial justices in British Columbia do not have the authority to perform marriage ceremonies. A person must be appointed as a marriage commissioner in order to perform a civil marriage ceremony. For information on finding a marriage commissioner, please visit the Department of Vital Statistics website.