The criminal justice system is meant to be fair, but not symmetrical. The Crown enjoys some advantages and labours under some disadvantages compared to the Defence.

One of the ways that Crown and Defence are treated very differently is with respect to legal costs. The prosecution is always fully funded by the taxpayer. It is not unusual for two or even three Crown lawyers to be assigned to a prosecution. They are assisted by police officers who help to organize and advise them on the evidence. They are backed by skilled paralegals and administrative resources. The complainant receives public services at no cost, which can include the provision of a lawyer on the rare occasions when it is required.

Very limited public funding is available only to some accused who meet the financial criteria. If there is any possibility that you may be eligible for Nova Scotial Legal Aid, you should apply. Most legal aid cases are handled by in-house legal aid lawyers. Some are handled by private counsel who accept legal aid certificates.

If you are not eligible for legal aid, or if you decide against using legal aid, from the moment you are charged with a criminal offence you must start thinking about legal costs, particularly if you intend to plead not guilty and have a trial. Never assume that the outcome of your case is a foregone conclusion. A criminal proceeding is an adversarial process and the resources that you marshall to your defence can have a real and meaningful impact on the outcome.

Your costs will be based on the amount of time that your lawyer needs to prepare and present your defence. In all but the simplest case, your lawyer will have to spend considerable time to thoroughly review the evidence; interview witnesses; analyze the issues and make strategic decisions; anticipate and research legal issues; and attend court on your behalf.

If you are facing serious charges that involve complicated facts and many witnesses, a great deal of time will be needed and the cost will be higher.

More time (and higher costs) will be required if the police investigation included any steps that could impact your Charter rights such as a search warrant or inculpatory statement.

For uncomplicated matters proceeding to trial, an all-inclusive flat rate can usually be quoted. For instance, in the case of a simple assault, mischief or theft charge involving a single incident, a few witnesses and no anticipated Charter issues, the cost would typically be in the range of $2500 to $5000 plus HST.

More complex matters involve allegations of multiple incidents, more numerous witnesses, very extensive investigations, or likely Charter issues. These cases are billed an hourly rate, currently $275 per hour plus HST. Most sexual assaults and most cases that could result in a penitentiary sentence (two years or more) are quoted an hourly rate.

Payment is always required at the outset. This deposit, or retainer, is held in a trust account until the work is completed and billed. It is then used to pay the bill.

When a flat rate is quoted, the full amount is due within thirty days. When an hourly rate is quoted, a retainer usually in the range of $5000 to $10,000 is required. This amount is applied to the ongoing legal bills, and may have to be replenished.

You can help to reduce your legal bill in several ways. Avoid unnecessary phone calls to your lawyer. Give serious consideration to admitting uncontroversial facts that can help to narrow the issues and reduce preparation and trial time. Thoroughly review your disclosure and make detailed notes to give your lawyer. Be responsive when your lawyer asks for your help contacting witnesses or obtaining documents.

In addition to flat rate and hourly billing, a limited retainer may also be available if you intend to represent yourself but need help with a specific part of the case, such as reviewing disclosure and deciding on trial strategy; preparing to cross-examine witnesses; understanding legal issues; or preparing to testify on your own behalf. In this situation, a flat rate can usually be quoted.