Going to court in Alberta can be confusing but learning more can help.
There are different courts in Alberta. You may have to go to family court to deal with parenting and financial issues. If the person causing harm has been charged with a crime, you may be a witness in criminal court. And if you need a protection order or have other issues that are not criminal or family related, you may have to go to civil court. Each court has it’s own rules and processes.
Court processes can be intimidating, unfamiliar and impersonal. Understanding your role and what to expect can help make the process easier for you.
Serving Court Documents
To serve a party means to officially give them documents in a way that can be proven to the court.
Before you appear in court on your scheduled date, you usually must serve the court documents on the other party. That way, they know what you are asking for and can respond. There are rules about serving court documents – how, when, to whom, where – depending on which court you are in. There are also rules about who can serve the documents. In cases of domestic violence, there are ways to safely serve documents on an abusive party.
Tips for Going to Court
- Understand the rules of court that apply to your case. There are rules for civil court, family court and criminal court, both in the Provincial Court and in the Court of Queen’s Bench. These rules describe when to file documents, serving documents, the court process and more.
- The person causing harm may say things in court that you do not agree with. Remember to stay calm. Do not roll your eyes or interrupt. Depending on which court you are in, the judge may ask if you want to respond. Remember to stick to the facts.
- Going to court can take lots of time, including the time preparing for court. A trial can take several hours, or even days or weeks.
- Court can be delayed or adjourned for many reasons outside of your control.
- You have no control over the charges laid. You cannot drop them. And if the person causing harm is pressuring you to drop the charges, or harassing you not to testify, talk to the police or Crown prosecutor assigned to the case.
- The Crown prosecutor’s job is to prove the person charged with a crime is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
- You can talk to the Crown prosecutor before the trial. Ask them any questions you have, and let them know if you need a translator or interpreter. You can also reach out to court support workers who can help guide you through the process.
- You may receive a subpoena – a court order directing you to testify (give oral evidence) in court. If you do not show up for court to testify, or are evading service of the subpoena on you, the judge can issue a warrant for your arrest. If you do not want to testify, talk to the Crown prosecutor ahead of time and before you are subpoenaed.
If you are a witness in Criminal Court
- Prepare for court by asking for a copy of your statement to police. Read it over.
- Arrive 15 minutes early and let the Crown prosecutor know you are there.
- Tell the truth and only the truth. If you do not know the answer or cannot remember, say so. Do not make something up.
- Speak clearly and loudly. Do not use gestures or shake your head yes or no. Your responses must be verbal so the court reporter can record what you say.
- If you do not understand the question, ask for it be rephrased.
- Do not discuss your testimony (what you are going to say) with anyone except the police and the Crown prosecutor.
- You must swear (religious option) or affirm (non-religious option) what you say is true.
- You will receive a notice saying when and where to attend court as a witness. If there is a serious reason why you cannot attend court, talk to the Crown prosecutor immediately.
- The accused’s lawyer’s job is to ask questions to check the truth of your statements. This is called cross-examination. Stay calm. Explain what you disagree or agree with. Do not get upset if it sounds like the defence lawyer does not believe you.
- If you are asked to leave the courtroom until it is your turn to speak, stay outside the courtroom so you can be easily found. This is called an order of exclusion so the witnesses cannot hear each other’s testimony.
TIP | Read our Sexual Violence: Reporting Sexual Violence to Police info sheet to learn more. While this info sheet is about sexual violence, the information about the criminal court process applies to all criminal offences.
Who’s Who in the Courtroom
The image shows the layout of the courtroom for criminal court. The layout for civil court is similar, except instead of a Crown prosecutor and defense counsel, there are counsel for the plaintiff and for the defendant. So what is everyone’s role?
Clerk of the Court
The clerk of the court helps the judge during court proceedings. The court clerk will swear the witnesses to tell the truth and take care of all the paperwork in the proceeding.
The court reporter sits in front of the courtroom near the judge. They record everything that people say during the court proceeding.
The Crown prosecutor is a lawyer who works for the provincial or federal government and represents the public interest in criminal proceedings. The prosecutor acts in the public interest and not on behalf of the victim. The prosecutor helps witnesses share their evidence in court.
The defense counsel is a lawyer who represents the accused, defending their rights and ensuring they have a fair trial. The accused can hire their own lawyer or ask for one through Legal Aid if they cannot afford a lawyer. Defense counsel will try to show the Crown prosecutor has not proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The judge oversees the proceedings. They make decisions about the law and what evidence can be admitted. The judge also decides the verdict (unless there is a jury) and, if the accused is found guilty, determines the sentence.
In Provincial Court, judges are called “Your Honour”. In the Court of Queen’s Bench, justices are called “My Lady/Madam”, “My Lord/Sir” or “Justice (last name)”
A jury is made up of 12 adult members of the public selected by the Crown prosecutor and defence counsel for a trial. The jury listens to all the evidence and the judge’s interpretation of the law before deciding the verdict. The jury’s decision must be unanimous, which means all jury members must agree on the decision. The jury does not sentence the accused.
The Sheriff’s job is to keep the courtroom safe. They wear a uniform similar to a police officer’s uniform.
The Crown prosecutor and the defence counsel can call witnesses to give evidence in court to help discover the truth. If you have been called as a witness, this means you have valuable information about the case. Your contribution is important so the judge or jury can make a fair decision. Witnesses are expected to give honest answers, sharing what they know or saw.
See CPLEA’s Going to Court resources for more information:
- Going to Family Docket Court in Alberta
- After the Judge Makes a Decision
- Court Appearances & Orders
- Court Fees & Waivers in Alberta
- Evidence in Court: Affidavits
- Resolving Family Law Disputes
- Serving Court Documents
- Tips for Going to Court
- Working with a Lawyer