CANADA'S COURT SYSTEM

The concept of justice is fundamental to Canadian society. Our expectations of how we are treated by others – from government agencies to members of our community – spring from laws made by various levels of government.  Learn more about Canada’s court system by clicking on the links below:

Canada’s laws and you

Laws are enforced by government agencies, and the courts are sometimes involved in resolving disputes. So, there is a dynamic and important relationship among the branches of the government. The government makes and administers our laws (legislative and executive branches), and the courts apply the laws when settling legal disputes (judicial branch).

Legislative branch functions

Every level of government creates laws (legislation) that affect you. Every day your municipal, provincial or territorial, and federal governments make, alter, and revoke laws. For example, your municipal government may pass a bylaw that says you can only construct a building of a certain size in your neighbourhood. Your provincial or territorial government has the jurisdiction authority to create laws that affect you in many other ways, such as the rights between a landlord and a tenant or an employer and employee. The federal government has jurisdiction over other matters, such as income tax and aviation.

Executive branch functions

The executive branch of government is responsible for administering and enforcing the laws. For example, you may have to get a permit from your municipal government to construct a new house. You may want to call the employment standards branch in your province or territory to find out about money you believe your employer owes you. Or, you may have to report to Canada Revenue Agency about your income tax return.

Judicial branch functions

When a legal dispute cannot be resolved outside the court system, the case “goes to litigation” or “goes to court” and after hearing all the evidence from the parties involved in the dispute, a judge makes a decision about the case, based on the law that applies to the facts.

There are many ways to resolve disputes without going to court and having a judge hear the case. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), refers to the various ways disputes are resolved outside the court system, such as negotiation, mediation and arbitration. Lawyers are skilled in settling legal disputes without going to court. Mediation and arbitration services are other options for ADR.

Where to learn more about Canada’s laws and you:

  • The Department of Justice helps the federal government develop policy and reform laws. It also acts as the government’s law firm.
  • The Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs (FJA) safeguards the independence of the judiciary and puts federally appointed judges at arm’s length from the Department of Justice. Its mandate is to promote better administration of justice and provide support to the federal judiciary.
  • The Constitution Act sets out the role of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.
  • Parliament of Canada

Where to learn more about Canada’s court system:

Where to learn more about Canadian legislation:

Where to find out about common legal terms used in the Supreme Court of Canada:

 

How Canadian courts are organized

There are different levels and types of courts in Canada – they differ in their jurisdiction, that is, what issues they have the authority to decide. There are provincial and territorial courts, superior courts, courts of appeal, federal courts, and administrative tribunals (which are not part of the court system, but play an important role in dispute resolution).

These are the different types of courts:

Provincial:

  • provincial and territorial courts
  • provincial and territorial superior courts
  • provincial courts of appeal

Federal:

  • Federal Court
  • Federal Court of Appeal
  • specialized federal courts (e.g., Tax Court of Canada and Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada)
  • Supreme Court of Canada

In addition to these courts, administrative tribunals are set up in the provincial or territorial and federal system to handle disputes relating to administrative rules and regulations.


Credit: Department of Justice of Canada

The above chart sets out the basic organization of the courts, from the “lowest level” provincial courts and administrative tribunals (tribunals are outside the court system), to the “highest court,” the Supreme Court of Canada.

Provincial and territorial courts

Every province and territory (except Nunavut) has a provincial or territorial court. (In Nunavut, all cases are heard by a superior court, called the Nunavut Court of Justice.) Provincial and territorial courts are sometimes referred to as the “lowest level” courts and they make decisions on disputes about provincial or territorial laws and some other matters that the federal government has given them the authority to decide. For example, provincial or territorial courts hear cases about most criminal offences, some family law matters such as child support (but not divorce), young offenders in conflict with the law, and legal disputes involving small sums of money (e.g., up to $25,000 in British Columbia).

The judges in provincial and territorial courts are appointed and paid by the provincial or territorial government.

Provincial and territorial superior courts

Every province and territory has a superior court. Their names many differ – the Supreme Court, the Court of Queen’s Bench or the Superior Court – but they all have essentially the same jurisdiction and perform the same function in every province and territory.

The superior courts have jurisdiction over most legal issues unless a specific statute states that they do not have jurisdiction. They hear most types of cases, including serious criminal offences, civil cases involving large sums of money, and divorce cases. They also hear appeals from the lower level provincial courts.

Provincial courts of appeal

Every province and territory has an appeal court that hears appeals from the superior court of that province or territory. For example, the New Brunswick Court of Appeal hears appeals from decisions of the New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench. A panel of three Court of Appeal judges usually hears cases that are being appealed, but the panel may increase in size if the chief justice of that court is of the opinion that the case requires the consideration of more judges.

Where to learn more about provincial and territorial courts:

Federal courts

The federal court system runs parallel to the provincial and territorial court systems. In contrast to provincial or territorial superior courts, which have jurisdiction over most matters, federal courts can only deal with matters that are specified in federal legislation.

Federal Court

The Federal Court can hear cases about:

  • disputes between the provinces or territories;
  • disputes between a province or territory and the federal government;
  • intellectual property (e.g., copyright issues);
  • citizenship appeals;
  • cases dealing with the Competition Act; and
  • cases involving federal Crown corporations (e.g., Canada Post) or departments of the Government of Canada.

An appeal from the Federal Court goes to the Federal Court of Appeal, then to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Federal Court of Appeal

An appeal from the Federal Court goes to the Federal Court of Appeal, then to the Supreme Court of Canada. As in other appeal courts, normally a panel of three judges hears the appeals.

Specialized federal courts

Some federal courts, like the Tax Court of Canada and the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada, specialize in only one area of law.\

The Tax Court of Canada hears disputes between taxpayers and the federal government on federal taxation issues. For example, if you had a dispute with the Canada Revenue Agency about your income tax return, and had exhausted all other avenues for resolving it, the Tax Court of Canada would hear the case. It is independent of the Canada Revenue Agency and all other government departments.

The Tax Court of Canada’s head office is in Ottawa, and there are regional offices in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Tax Court of Canada decisions can be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal, then to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada administers the National Defence Act and the Criminal Code. It hears appeals from the courts martial, which are military tribunals established under the National Defence Act. They hear cases involving the Code of Service Discipline, which applies to all members of the Canadian Forces and civilians on active service.

The Supreme Court of Canada hears appeals from the Court Martial Appeal Court.

The Supreme Court of Canada

The Supreme Court of Canada, located in Ottawa, is the highest-level court in Canada. It hears appeals from all lower courts in Canada, including the provincial and territorial courts of appeal, the Federal Court of Appeal, and the Court Martial Appeal Court.

The Supreme Court of Canada has jurisdiction over disputes in every area of law, including constitutional law, administrative law, criminal law, civil law, family law, federal taxation, and military issues.

In most cases, the Supreme Court of Canada has to “give leave” (agree) to hear an appeal. It will do so if the case involves an important question of law or concerns an issue of general importance to the public.

The Supreme Court of Canada is composed of a chief justice and eight other judges, all appointed by the federal government. At least three of the judges must come from Quebec. By tradition, three other judges come from Ontario, two from western Canada, and one from the Atlantic provinces.

There is no appeal from a decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Credit: special thanks to the Department of Justice of Canada

Where to find out more about federal courts:

Where to learn more about federal court judgments:

Where to find out more about courts in other countries:

The United States of America

The United Kingdom

New Zealand

 Australia

New court initiatives

When Nunavut was established as a territory in 1999, it created a new kind of court – the Nunavut Court of Justice, which combines the powers of a territorial (or provincial) court and a superior court. This enables the same judge to hear all cases in the territory.

Unified family courts, established in some provinces, hear cases on all family law issues. In the traditional court system, the provincial court can make decisions on some issues (e.g., custody), while other issues must be decided by a superior court (e.g., divorce).

Sentencing circles are a regular part of the court process in much of Canada when Aboriginal offenders are being sentenced in criminal proceedings. When an Aboriginal person is found guilty of a crime, the court invites interested members of the community to join the discussion about sentencing options. The judge, prosecutor, defence counsel, police, social service providers, community elders, the offender, victim, family members, and other supporters meet to discuss the offence, sentencing options, and ways of reintegrating the offender into the community. While the judge is not bound to accept the circle’s sentencing recommendation, the process is valuable in helping the judge set an appropriate and effective sentence.

Where to learn more about new court initiatives:

Alternatives to going to court

Alternative dispute resolution

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) refers to the various ways disputes are resolved outside the court system, such as negotiation, mediation and arbitration. Lawyers are skilled in settling your legal dispute without going to court, or you can find information about mediation and arbitration services on the Internet.

Administrative tribunals

Administrative tribunals – both federal and provincial – run parallel to the provincial or territorial and federal court systems. Although administrative tribunals may resemble courts, they are not part of the court system. They are specialized bodies (organizations) that hear disputes about government rules and regulations, like employment insurance, disability benefits, and refugee claims. They are created by statute and focus on very particular areas of law.

Where to learn more about alternatives to going to court:

Where to learn more about provincial and territorial courts:

Alberta

Where to find out more about Alberta courts:

  • The Alberta Justice website provides information about justice and public security. It also provides educational resources about the justice system, including answers to common questions here.
  • The Alberta courts website provides information about the Court of Appeal, Court of Queens Bench, Provincial Court, and court services.
  • Virtual court tours help you understand the courtroom setup.
  • Alberta justice information on related programs and services.
  • Information and resources on teaching about justice can be found on the Solicitor General’s website.
  • The Legal Aid Society of Alberta may provide legal assistance to people who cannot afford a lawyer. The website is a good resource for legal information.

Where to learn more about Alberta court judgments:

Where to find out about common legal terms used in Alberta courts:

British Columbia

Where to find out more about British Columbia courts:

  • Ministry of the Attorney General website provides information about courts and court services, dispute resolution options, family justice issues, and a review of proposed legislation.
  • BC Courts website provides information about the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and the Provincial Court. It also offers useful links to general legal information, legislation and court rules, other Canadian courts, and law related groups.
  • The Law Courts Education Society is a good resource for public legal education, including the justice system, self-representation, classroom tools, and aboriginal community resources.
  • The BC Courthouse Library Society website provides links to legal information resources.
  • The Legal Services Society website provides links to law and legal services in BC and outlines Legal Aid guidelines for people who cannot afford a lawyer.
  • The Justice Institute of BC is a public, post secondary educational institution that provides training in criminal and social justice.
  • The People’s Law School offers courses and publications about the law to the public.

Where to learn more about British Columbia court judgments:

Manitoba

Where to find out more about Manitoba courts:

Where to learn more about Manitoba court judgments:

  • Judgments from Manitoba courts can be found on CanLII

Where to find out about common legal terms used in Manitoba courts:

New Brunswick

Where to find out more about New Brunswick courts:

Where to learn more about New Brunswick court judgments:

Where to find out about common legal terms used in New Brunswick courts:

Newfoundland and Labrador

Where to find out more about Newfoundland and Labrador courts:

Where to learn more about Newfoundland and Labrador court judgments:

  • Judgments from Newfoundland and Labrador courts can be found on CanLII.

Where to find out about common legal terms used in Newfoundland and Labrador courts:

Northwest Territories

Where to find out more about Northwest Territory courts:

Where to learn more about Northwest Territory court judgments:

Nova Scotia

Where to find out more about Nova Scotia courts:

Where to learn more about Nova Scotia court judgments:

Where to find out about common legal terms used in Nova Scotia courts:

Nunavut

Where to find out more about Nunavut courts:

Where to learn more about Nunavut court judgments:

  • Judgments from Nunavut courts can be found on CanLII

Ontario

Where to find out more about Ontario courts:

Where to learn more about Ontario court judgments:

Where to find out about common legal terms used in Ontario courts:

Prince Edward Island

Where to find out more about Prince Edward Island courts:

Where to learn more about Prince Edward Island court judgments:

  • Judgments from the Prince Edward Island can be found here.
  • Judgments from Prince Edward Island courts can also be found on CanLII.

Quebec

Where to find out more about Quebec courts:

Where to learn more about Quebec court judgments:

Saskatchewan

Where to find out more about Saskatchewan courts:

Where to learn more about Saskatchewan court judgments:

Yukon

Where to find out more about Yukon courts:

Where to learn more about Yukon court judgments: