Blue Line


June 16, 2016  By Jason Pilon

It can often be daunting to testify in a criminal trial. There’s the usual stresses and strains of following your oath, responding to compound questions and dealing with the vicissitudes of memory, but witnesses are also challenged by the complexity and frequency of unusual legal terms and concepts.

Even lawyers – “professional linguists” who make their living using precise words or phrases – are often tripped up when it comes to using the proper terms and correct “legalese.” The difficulties encountered by both “questioner” and “answerer” at trial are only amplified when a witness is examined in a “second language.”

Under <s.530 (4)> of the Criminal Code and the Supreme Court of Canada decision in <R. v. Beaulac, [1999] S.C.J. No. 25 (S.C.C.)>, persons charged with a crime are specifically entitled, upon application, to choose to be tried in English, French or, if the circumstances warrant, both. As a result, lawyers and police witnesses with varying degrees of proficiency in French are frequently called upon to examine or testify, and often find themselves ill-equipped for the task.

While perfectly capable of communicating in French outside of court, they often strain to identify and use the correct words and phrases as they are commonly used in French trials. Simply put, even the most educated and otherwise bilingual lawyers and police officers are not all equally familiar with “French legalese.”


Having been confronted with this situation many times in the past, I compiled a “portable glossary” of legal terms and phrases in French to take into court and peruse when the word(s) escape either my knowledge or memory. After a while, the proper words and phrases (some obvious, others far less so) became more familiar such that they eventually became a standard part of my “courtroom vocabulary.”

While not as exhaustive or otherwise complete as a traditional lexicon, this glossary is not as cumbersome or “obvious” and not encumbered by irrelevant, “non-criminal” related terms. The glossary presumes at least a basic working knowledge of French and is intended as a printable/portable “quick reference” or aide mémoire in court.

The 19th Century French novelist and leading exponent of “literary realism”, Gustave Flaubert, fervently believed in the principle of finding “le mot juste” (the right word), which he considered the best way to achieve quality in literary art. He would often spend weeks looking for the precise word to use at a specific time. I hope the glossary will assist participants in criminal trials to have “the right word(s)” closer at hand when it matters the most.

The PDF version of the English-French legal terms document, click here:


Jason Pilon is an Assistant Crown Attorney for the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry and the District of Akwesasne in Cornwall, ON. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the position of the Ministry of the Attorney General.

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