Are you entitled to a trial in French?

A Canadian’s right to have a criminal trial in either official language is upheld in certain jurisdictions. (Photo: iStock)
A Canadian’s right to have a criminal trial in either official language is upheld in certain jurisdictions. (Photo: iStock)

Although multitudes of languages are spoken across Canada, there are only two official languages: English and French. That’s why all currency, federal government documents, airport announcements and consumer packaging comes in both languages. Additionally, citizens who travel internationally can get assistance in either language at any Canadian embassy or consulate around the world.

Bilingualism also extends to the law in Canada. For example, the Criminal Code is written in English and French. However, some Canadians may wonder whether or not that means they can choose to have court services performed in the language of their choice.

Federal crimes mean federal rules apply

As stated above, the Criminal Code of Canada is bilingual, so it therefore follows that anyone on trial for an alleged violation of the code may ask that the proceedings be conducted in the language of the defendant’s choice. Section 530 guarantees this right, with the details including the following:

  • The right to use either language during the preliminary and trial stages
  • Right of a witness to testify in either language
  • Right to a justice fluent in the accused’s language of choice
  • Transcripts, documentary evidence and judgments to be written in the chosen language

A bilingual country does not guarantee a bilingual province

The recognition of two official languages is a federal edict and applies to all federal institutions. However, the provinces and territories each have their own positions on bilingualism.

All three territories and New Brunswick are officially bilingual. Three provinces, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, are officially unilingual, but have bilingual legal systems. Four provinces have no official position, but operate in just one language. Finally, the remaining two provinces, Ontario and Quebec, “recognize” bilingualism. Quebec officially has just one language, French, and Ontario unofficially conducts business in English only.

So, what does this mean for a person going to court? That depends on why one is going to court and in what province.

For example, in Alberta, a Francophone has the right to a criminal trial in French. In a civil court, however, he or she has the peculiar right to express him or herself in French but without the right to be understood. Across the county in New Brunswick, a defendant can use either language freely in any court proceeding, civil or criminal.

In British Columbia, however, bilingual rights only extend as far as the ability to demand an interpreter. A man on trial for an alleged offence under the provincial code had his request for a trial in French denied by a provincial court judge in 2014. He appealed the decision to the B.C. Supreme Court. The justices did not rule on the rightness or wrongness of the decision but upheld the lower court’s right to make the decision.

In conclusion/En conclusion

A Canadian’s right to have a criminal trial in either official language is upheld by the Criminal Code, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and by provincial decree in certain jurisdictions. Doing so may not always be practical, however, and could delay a trial’s progress. If it is one’s intention to have a trial conducted in French, it is best to make that known as early as possible.
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