Judges play many roles. They interpret the law, assess the evidence presented, and control how hearings and trials unfold in their courtrooms. Most important of all, judges are impartial decision-makers in the pursuit of justice. We have what is known as an adversarial system of justice – legal cases are contests between opposing sides, which ensures that evidence and legal arguments will be fully and forcefully presented. The judge, however, remains above the fray, providing an independent and impartial assessment of the facts and how the law applies to those facts.
Many criminal cases – and almost all civil ones – are heard by a judge sitting without a jury. The judge is the “trier of fact,” deciding whether the evidence is credible and which witnesses are telling the truth. Then the judge applies the law to these facts to determine whether a civil claim has been established on a balance of probabilities or whether there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, in criminal cases, that the suspect is guilty. Anyone who faces five years or more in prison if convicted of a crime has the right, under the Charter, to request a jury trial, and many defendants facing serious offences such as murder opt to have a jury hear their case. The jurors become the triers of fact and assess the evidence while the judge takes on the role of legal advisor, explaining the law to the jurors. The jurors then retire to deliberate on a verdict. In criminal cases the jury’s verdict, either “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” must be unanimous.
If the defendant is convicted of a crime, the judge passes sentence, imposing a penalty that can range from a fine to a prison term depending on the severity of the offence. In civil cases the judge decides whether a claim is valid and assesses damages, grants an injunction or orders some other form of redress to the plaintiff, unless a jury has been empanelled to make these decisions.