Court Site Study of Adult Unrepresented Accused in the Provincial Criminal Courts (Part 2: Site Reports)

Chapter 7: St. John's, Newfoundland (continued)

7.3 Frequency of accused appearing without representation

7.3.1 Self-representation over the life of the case and at selected appearances

As shown later, the interviews and the analysis of the data specially collected for the project indicate that not having representation has significant implications for the accused – and for other groups involved in the court process.  It is therefore important to start by describing how frequently self-represented accused appear at different stages of the court process.

The Court Observation data cover both first appearances and "interim non-final" appearances from 9:30 to 10:00 a.m. before the trial courts.  As noted earlier, these data are our preferred source of information on non-final court appearances.

 Taking all appearances observed together, the court observer found that:

  • The accused was self-represented at only 17 percent of interim appearances, overall (i.e., first appearances plus interim appearances).
  • At first appearance court (where duty counsel is tasked with representing all persons who ask for help), only 14 percent of appearances involved a self-represented accused.
  • At "interim" appearances at the beginning of trial court days (where duty counsel is not present), 19 percent of appearances involved a self-represented accused.

As noted earlier, the statistics provided on representation at first appearance by the Disposed Cases file are suspect. [62]  However, that file likely does provide reasonably accurate estimates of the percentages of cases appearing at last appearance without representation.  According to that file:

  • There was no legal representation for 34 percent of cases at final appearances (including both guilty and other dispositions).

7.3.2 Self-representation by category of offence

Interviewees suggested that the criminal charges most likely to be faced by unrepresented accused were impaired driving, public disturbances, frauds, shoplifting and other theft under $5000 (except for those with lengthy records), simple possession of drugs, and non-domestic assaults.

The Court Observation sample can be used to indicate the proportion of accused who were unrepresented at first and interim appearances.  The Disposed Cases sample indicates the analogous proportion at last appearance who were unrepresented.  Figure St.J-3 displays this information according to the offence category[63] of the most serious charge in the case.[64]

Figure St.J-3. Case/Appearances and Disposed Cases: Proportion of Accused who were Unrepresented by Type of Appearances by Most Serious Charge Category, St. John's*
Most Serious Charge Category Proportion of Unrepresented Accused at
First & Interim Appearance 1 Final Appearance 2
% # of cases % # of cases
Homicide *** 0 *** 1
Sexual Assault *** 8 *** 2
Assaults excl. Common 16% 19 19% 68
Robbery *** 0 *** 0
Break and Enter 0% 15 25% 20
Impaired Driving 23% 18 42% 98
Common Assault 8% 13 36% 42
Drugs excl. Simple Possession 0% 20 16% 19
Weapons Offences *** 2 45% 20
Thefts and Frauds 16% 59 37% 114
Simple Possession of Drugs *** 3 43% 21
Offences against Administration of Justice 0 17 21% 28
Public Order *** 3 86% 14
Miscellaneous Criminal Code *** 0 *** 1
Other Federal Statutes 31% 15 *** 3
Total 16% 191 34% 472


  • 1. Calculated using Court Observation sample.
  • 2. Calculated using Disposed Cases sample.
  • *     Excludes cases for which representation was unspecified in the file.
  • **   Combined total for first and last appearances.
  • *** The cell contains too few cases to report a percentage.

The table suggests that 16 percent of accused were unrepresented at first or interim appearances, and 34 percent of accused were unrepresented at last appearance.  The small number of cases for each offence category makes it difficult to draw many comparisons between offence groupings.

7.3.3 Self-representation by stage in process

Many interviewees found themselves unable to venture a numerical estimate of the proportions of unrepresented accused at various stages in the process, and those who did differed widely:

  • At first appearance: Estimates of unrepresented accused ranged from 20 percent to 50 percent
  • At bail: Interviewees noted that duty counsel was available at the bail stage, but some suggested that perhaps 10-to-25 percent did not avail themselves of duty counsel.
  • At plea: Estimates of unrepresented accused ranged from 10 percent to 80 percent.
  • At trial: Estimates of unrepresented accused ranged from 10 percent to 90 percent.

Unfortunately, since the court records did not capture the type of representation at specific court appearances, we could not use these records to estimate the percentages of cases with different representation at each of these stages in the court process.

Fortunately – at least for first and interim court appearances – we can shed some light on this issue using the Court Observation sample.   As shown in Figure St.J-4 – for appearances on the first and interim courts' dockets – accused were most likely to be unrepresented at appearances in which there was a final disposition.  Conversely, accused were least likely to be unrepresented at appearances that involved a bail hearing.

Figure St.J-4. Cases/Appearances in which Accused are Self- Represented by Stage in Court Process, St. John's *

No Final Disposition
Stage in Process Percent of Cases Number of Cases
No bail, no plea, no election 21% 63
Bail considered – no plea no election 4% 53
Plea and/or election – no bail 17% 41
Bail & Plea *** 6

Final Disposition
Stage in Process Percent of Cases Number of Cases
At least one guilty or S. 810 32% 25
Other Final Disposition *** 3
All Stages 16%  

* Source: Court Observation sample.

7.3.4 Socio-demographic characteristics of unrepresented accused

Most interviewees agreed that the only differences between unrepresented accused and other accused were in income, prior record and the likelihood of imprisonment.  Most interviewees agreed that unrepresented accused did not understand what was happening to them in the court process, to what one interviewee called a "frightening" degree.  The numbers of functionally illiterate or borderline literate accused was reportedly high.  Most interviewees (though not all) stated that accused with mental disorders were, if anything, more likely to be represented because of their low economic status, although significant delays were reported in the legal aid approval process for these difficult clients.  Several interviewees noted the large proportion of accused with mental disorders, from depression to alcohol abuse.

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