In order for you to be charged with a crime in Canada, that behaviour has to be prohibited by a law. You can find most of the offences that young people are charged with in the Criminal Code, or in a related statute (for instance, if it is a drug offence, you might find it in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act).

Every crime has two elements—a prohibited act (or actus reus) and a criminal fault (or mens rea).

Actus Reus

The Actus Reus is pretty basic—the Criminal Code states that it is illegal to do a certain action, like steal another person’s things, or to fail to do a certain action, like provide the things your children need to live. The words that are used in the provision are really important to understanding what exactly is considered to be a crime.

For instance, when you think about robbery, you might think about a holdup of a convenience store. And that would definitely be a robbery. But the wording of the provision in the Criminal Code that prohibits robbery includes a lot more than that. For instance, under s. 343(C) of the Criminal Code, robbery also includes assaulting someone with the intent to steal from him or her. This means that you can be guilty of robbery even if you don’t actually steal anything, as long as you intend to steal something when you assault someone. And the Criminal Code defines assault broadly. It includes applying force in order to harm someone without their consent. It also includes making threats to apply force to someone, and impeding someone or begging while openly carrying a weapon. So you could be convicted of a robbery for making threats to harm someone, or begging or impeding someone while openly carrying a weapon (the prohibited action), as long as you have the intent to steal.

Mens Rea

This raises the second element of a criminal offence—the criminal fault, or mens rea. Sometimes, people call this the “guilty mind.” The intent to threaten/hit and steal is the mens rea for robbery. The idea of the mens rea is that someone should not be found guilty of a crime if they don’t have the required level of fault. So, in the robbery example, you could not be convicted of robbery if you impeded someone while openly carrying a knife, when you did not also have the intent to steal. (But you could probably be convicted of assault).

Different crimes in the Criminal Code have different levels of fault associated with them. You might find them in the section—look for words like “intent,” “knowingly,” “for the purpose of”, “recklessly” or “negligently” for clues. Other times, however, the Court has decided the level of fault associated with a given crime while it is hearing a case.

So, when the Crown attorney (the government lawyer) goes to Court to prove someone committed a crime, they have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person both committed the act and that they had the guilty intent. If they can’t prove both the act or the required level of intent, that person cannot be convicted or found guilty of that crime.

Want to understand the actus reus (prohibited action) and the mens rea (criminal intent) for other criminal offences?  You can look up the definition of an offence in the Criminal Code of Canada.

This post was written by Krista Nerland, a PLE Team Member and JFCY volunteer.  Krista is a first year law student at the University of Toronto. Legal info was reviewed by JFCY.