Is There a Statute of Limitations for Crimes Committed in Canada?


As with any comprehensive response to a legal question, the answer begins with “it depends”. In Canada, when someone is charged with a Criminal offence, there are two ways in which the Crown Attorney proceeds to prosecute the charges: either via summary conviction or indictment (a helpful lateral would be the US based misdemeanour versus felony regime). In Canada, there are designated summary conviction offences (i.e., Section 174 of the Criminal Code of Canada - “public nudity”), and there are also designated indictable offences (i.e., Section 76 of the Criminal Code of Canada - “hijacking”). Summary conviction offences are perceived as less serious than indictable offences. Being convicted under either regime results in one acquiring a criminal record. There is a third category by which the Crown Attorney can proceed to prosecute, these are called hybrid offences (i.e., committing mischief under $5000 can be proceeded on via summary conviction or indictment). The decision to proceed one way or the other is determined by the Crown Attorney. The Crown Attorney will decide which route to prosecute based on the particular facts and circumstances of the case, as well as in consideration of available resources and whether there is a reasonable chance to secure a conviction.

An offence prosecuted via summary conviction has the following features: the accused has no right to a jury trial and cannot elect to have a preliminary hearing nor be tried by a higher court (in Ontario, the case will always be heard in the Ontario Court of Justice); the accused must be charged within 6 months of the commission of the offence; a person who commits a straight summary conviction offence does not have to provide finger prints under the Identification of Criminals Act; summary conviction appeals are first heard in Ontario at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

An offence prosecuted via indictment has the following features: the accused is entitled to a preliminary hearing (save for the exceptions in section 553); the accused is entitled to be tried on a judge alone or a judge and jury basis; the accused will typically have their trial heard in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice (but could elect to be tried in the Ontario Court of Justice on a judge alone basis); indictable offences often carry sentences potentially requiring life in prison; appeals for indictable offences are heard at the Ontario Court of appeal; there is no statute of limitations for indictable offences.

A hybrid offence is classed as both a summary conviction and indictable offence. Again, the Crown Attorney will decide which route to prosecute. If the commission of the hybrid offence pre-dated the laying of the charge by more than six months, then the Crown Attorney (should they decide to prosecute) would be bound to prosecute via indictment.

To address the statute of limitations question proposed in the title of this post, at the most basic level, the answer for a summary conviction offence is in the affirmative (6 months). For an indictable offence there is no statute of limitations. For a hybrid offence, whether a limitation exists falls squarely on the procedure the Crown Attorney decides to proceed on. One should note that a Crown Attorney could originally elect summary conviction and later proceed via indictment (for hybrid offences, this is aptly named a ‘re-election’).

Some might tend to think that limitation periods in the criminal law context are bogus given that the passage of time should not detract from the fact that someone is alleged to have committed a crime. Those thinking in this vein should consider that an accused should not be prosecuted for an offence based on newly conceived morality or public opinion that did not exist at the time of the offence; the loss of objectivity (with time a witness might forget/misconstrue evidence [AND THEY DO] required to determine guilt) can lead to an unfair trial; physical evidence or it’s continuity can be lost; and for a straight summary offence (i.e. a less serious offence) it would be impractical to prosecute a dated matter with no physical evidence and no reliable way for the Crown Attorney to screen out unfounded allegations.

As with anything in law, there are rules and corresponding exceptions. There are limitations on some kinds of charges and for others there are not.

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- Jordan Tekenos-Levy