Credibility Based on Prior Criminal Record

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General Principles

Under s. 12(1) of the Canada Evidence Act, any witness may be questioned on whether they have been convicted of prior offences.[1] The evidence may go to credibility but not to bad character or propensity to commit crimes. It will also be limited where the prejudicial effect outweighs the probative value.[2]

Section 12 states:

Examination as to previous convictions
12. (1) A witness may be questioned as to whether the witness has been convicted of any offence, excluding any offence designated as a contravention under the Contraventions Act, but including such an offence where the conviction was entered after a trial on an indictment.
R.S., 1985, c. C-5, s. 12; 1992, c. 47, s. 66.


Section 12 of the Canada Criminal Evidence Act permits cross-examining any witness on the existence of a criminal record. Defence can cross-examine a crown witness on any details behind their criminal record. The only limitation is relevance to the case before the court.[3]

It is permissible to cross-examination on convictions under any federal legislation,[4], certain convictions under provincial legislation[5], and convictions under foreign legislation where it would constitute an offence in Canada.[6]

A jury may not use the conviction of a co-accused for the same charge as evidence towards guilt, rather it may only be used to assess the accused's knowledge and intent.[7]

A charge against any witness cannot be used as evidence against credibility due to the presumption of innocence. He also cannot be cross-examined on outstanding charges.[8] There is a limited exception to this rule.[9]

Youth Records
It is not permitted to cross-examine a person on their youth criminal record without satisfying the requirements for production of records under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.[10]

  1. See s. 12 CEA
  2. see Discretionary Exclusion of Evidence
  3. R v Davidson (1974) 20 CCC 2d 292 (ONCA)(*no link) at p.443
    R v Gassyt and Markowitz, 1998 CanLII 5976 (ON CA), (1998) 127 CCC (3d) 546 (ONCA) at 560
    R v Miller, 1998 CanLII 5115 (ON CA), (1998) 131 CCC (3d) 141 (ONCA) at 147
    R v H(BJ), 2000 CanLII 3190 (ON CA), [2000] O.J. No. 279 (ONCA) at para 2
  4. R v Watkins, (1992), 70 CCC (3d) 341 (ONCA)(*no link)
  5. R v Green (1943) 79 CCC 227 (BCCA)(*no link)
  6. R v Stratton, 1978 CanLII 1644 (ON CA), (1978), 21 O.R. (2d) 258 (Ont. C.A.)
  7. R v Garneau, 2012 NSCA 41 (CanLII)
  8. R v Tomlinson, 2014 ONCA 158 (CanLII), at para 77
  9. R v Titus, 1983 CanLII 49 (SCC), [1983] 1 SCR 259
  10. R v Sheik-Qasim, 2007 CanLII 52983 (ON SC) per Molloy SCJ

Accused's Record

Except where the accused places his character at issue, the Crown cannot cross examine the witness on the accused of the prior criminal record. The crown can ask the accused of the date and place of conviction; the offence convicted; the sentence imposed. [1]

The defence can seek to limit the use of the criminal record by way of a "Corbett Application".

  1. R v Vincent, 1998 CanLII 6339 (ON CA), [1998] O.J. No. 3666 (C.A.) at 16-17
    R v Menard, 1996 CanLII 685 (ON CA), (l996), 108 CCC (3d) 424 (Ont.C.A.) at 435-436 affirmed (l998), 125 CCC (3d) 416 (SCC) at 427-428, 433
    R v Bricker, 1994 CanLII 630 (ON CA), (1994), 90 CCC (3d) 268 (Ont.C.A.) at 274-279
    R v Shortreed (1990), 54 CCC (3d) 292 (Ont.C.A.)(*no link) at pp. 305-307
    R v Furrant, [1983] 1 SCR 124, 1983 CanLII 118 (SCC), (1983), 4 CCC (3d) 354 (SCC) at 368-369
    R v Laurier (l983), I O.A.C. 128 (Ont.C.A.)(*no link) at p. 131
    R v Howard and Trudel (1983), 3 CCC (3d) 399 (Ont.C.A.)(*no link) at 417
    R v Lizotte (1980), 61 CCC (2d) 423 (Que.C.A.)(*no link) at 432-434
    R v Boyce, 1975 CanLII 569 (ON CA), (1975), 23 CCC (2d) 16 (Ont.C.A.) at 35-37
    R v McLaughlin, 1974 CanLII 748 (ON CA), (1974), 20 CCC 59 (Ont.C.A.) at 60-61

Non-Accused's Record

A non-accused witness may be cross-examined on the circumstances of an offence underlying a prior conviction.[1]

The criminal record of the deceased in a homicide cannot be used to suggest that the deceased’s “demise was a civic improvement”.[2]

The criminal record of a victim is relevant to “the probability of the deceased having been the aggressor and to support the accused’s evidence that he was attacked by the deceased".[3]

The record can be used to establish a violent disposition to carry or use a weapon and therefore increase the chances of the victim reaching for a weapon before their death.[4]

  1. R v Bugar, 2010 ABCA 318 (CanLII)
  2. R v Head, 2014 MBCA 59 (CanLII) at para 15
    R v Varga (R.L.) (2001), 2001 CanLII 8610 (ON CA), 150 O.A.C. 358 at para 7
  3. R v Scopelliti (1981), 1981 CanLII 1787 (ON CA), 34 OR (2d) 524 at 535 (CA)
  4. Head, supra at para 16
    R v Sims (1994), 1994 CanLII 1298 (BC CA), 87 CCC (3d) 402 at 421-26 (BCCA)

Proving a Record

See also: Notice_of_Increased_Penalty#Proving_Prior_Record and Proof of Previous Conviction

Corbett Application

See Also