If an accused chooses to testify at a criminal trial in Canada, the general rule is that the state is permitted to cross-examine the accused on his criminal record for the limited purpose of challenging his credibility (see Canada Evidence Act s. 12 and R. v. Corbett, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 670).

There are, however, strict limitations on the permissible scope of questions that a Crown may ask an accused about his criminal record:

1)   “…an accused can only be cross-examined on the bare bones of his or her criminal record, the charge, the date and the punishment imposed…” - an accused cannot be cross-examined on the details of the conduct underlying each conviction (R. v. Borden, [2017] N.S.J. No. 206 (C.A.) at para. 123)(also see Corbett at para. 48);

2)    “….an accused may be cross-examined only as to “convictions” strictly construed … there can be no cross-examination where the accused was found guilty and granted a conditional discharge, conditions subsequently having been fulfilled…”(Corbett, para. 48) (see also Borden at para. 121);

3)   “The Crown is not entitled to go beyond prior convictions to cross-examine an accused as to … association with disreputable individuals…”(Corbett, para. 48); and

4)   “...an accused cannot be cross-examined as to whether he testified on the prior occasion when convicted in order to show that he is one who was not believed by a jury on a previous occasion…”(Corbett, para. 48).

Other considerations:

A Corbett application

Before deciding whether to testify in a jury trial, an accused may try to persuade the judge, in the interests of trial fairness, to further restrict the permissible scope of the Crown's cross-examination, and in some cases, to prohibit the Crown from bringing up the record at all. 

In a judge alone trial, Defence counsel may allude to the Corbett factors during final submissions in an effort to minimize the impact of the accused’s record during the judge’s decision-making process.

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