Young People and Criminal Law

The Dial-A-Law library is prepared by lawyers and gives practical information on many areas of law in British Columbia. Script 225 gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call the Lawyer Referral Service at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (the Act) is the law that controls how federal criminal law, such as the Criminal Code, applies to young people accused of breaking a criminal law. The Act deals only with young people who have had their 12th birthday but have not yet had their 18th birthday. The Act does not apply to children under 12 or to people over 17.

The Act explains how police, courts, and the correctional system must treat young people who are arrested, charged, or convicted of a crime under federal laws.

The most important federal criminal law is the Criminal Code. It covers common crimes like shoplifting, breaking and entering, car theft, and assault. It also covers the most serious crimes, like murder. Other federal laws deal with things like possessing and selling (or trafficking) illegal drugs.

Provincial laws, not the Act, cover many other crimes, such as drinking under age, trespassing, and breaking traffic laws.

Your rights if the police stop you and question you
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees basic rights to everyone – including teenagers. One important protection is the right to legal advice if police arrest or detain you. You have the right to call a lawyer as soon as possible if the police arrest you. You can use the phone book to find the number of the Lawyer Referral Service, Legal Aid, or a lawyer.

You also have the right to remain silent. If the police question you, you don't have to say anything that they could use against you. Anything you do say can be used against you in court. If the police ask you to say anything, you have the right to speak to your parent or another adult first.

Although you have the right to be silent, in some cases, the law requires you to answer some questions the police ask. For example, if the police stop you when you are driving a vehicle, you must give them your name and address and show them your driver's license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance.

In other situations, if the police just want to know what's going on, they might ask for your name, address, and date of birth. You may want to give this information to avoid problems.

If the police charge you with an offence, you must give them your name and address, but that’s all.

If you are arrested
When police arrest you, they must tell you what offence they think you committed. They can’t take you into custody unless they arrest you. The police must give you a chance to call a lawyer as soon as reasonably possible after they arrest you.

If the police arrest you, they must immediately tell you that:

  • you do not have to say anything or answer any questions
  • anything you do say can be used against you as evidence in court
  • you have the right to speak to a lawyer and a parent or other adult before you say anything
  • the lawyer or an adult must be with you when you make a statement to police, unless you choose not to have that adult with you

If you are arrested, you should speak to a lawyer before deciding whether to give a statement to the police.

If you are charged with an offence but not arrested
The police can recommend that you be charged with an offence without arresting you. In that case, they give you an Appearance Notice that orders you to go to court to speak to a judge on a certain day. Or, the police can get a court order called a Summons, and have it delivered to you at home. Like an Appearance Notice, a Summons will tell you when and where you have to go to see a judge.

You may also have to go to the police station at a specific time to get fingerprinted and photographed. The police have the right to take pictures and fingerprints only for certain offences. Talk to a lawyer before you go to the police station for pictures and fingerprints, to see if you must go.

Legal help
If you do not have a lawyer, you may be able to get one through Legal Aid (604.408.2172 and 1.866.577.2525). You can also find a lawyer through the Lawyer Referral Service (604.687.3221 and 1.800.663.1919).

If you are in police custody, you can call a 24-hour emergency number for legal advice. In Vancouver and the lower mainland, call 1.866.458.5500. Elsewhere in BC, call 1.866.458.3300. Usually, a lawyer will answer your call right away. If you cannot get through at that number, call 1.250.882.9451 and leave a message. A lawyer will try to phone you back within 30 minutes.

For more information, check script 226, called “Youth Justice Court Trials”.

[updated August 2017]

The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Yulina Wang and edited by John Blois.

Dial-A-Law© is a library of legal information available by:

  • phone, as recorded scripts, and
  • audio and text, on the CBA BC Branch website.

To access Dial-A-Law, call 604.687.4680 in the lower mainland or 1.800.565.5297 elsewhere in BC. Dial-A-Law is available online at

The Dial-A-Law library is prepared by lawyers and gives practical information on many areas of law in British Columbia. Dial-A-Law is funded by the Law Foundation of British Columbia and sponsored by the Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia Branch.

© Copyright 1983-2017 The Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia Branch