Back to Basics: The Canadian Court Structure

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started to write about recent Small Claims Court decisions, and it’s truly been an invaluable learning experience. Not to worry, it will definitely be a staple here on the blog for the foreseeable future. However, we are taking a little detour this week because I want to take it back to where it all started.

While writing case summaries is an excellent opportunity for me to mentally compare, contrast and apply what I learn in school with real life situations, I realize that verbage and jargon within the judge’s decisions can be challenging even for someone with legal training. In fact, I still struggle with this all the time even though I’m well into my second semester in school becoming a paralegal. So I decided that I should backtrack a little bit, and cover the basics. Today, let’s start with the Caandian court structure.

Fact: Up until a few months ago, I honestly had no idea how many levels of courts we have in Canada or in my province, what they are called and what they actually do…and they let me graduate with a major in criminology. Talk about living under a rock :p

Canadian Court Structure

Supreme Court of Canada (the one and only)

Court of Appeal   (highest court in each province)

Superior Court Justice (provincial trial courts)

Provincial Court (lower level court in each province)

Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) — Highest court in Canada

  • There is only ONE Supreme Court, located in Ottawa
  • There are 9 supreme court judges (odd number of judges to avoid a tie)
  • Must ask for permission (“seek leave”) before cases can appearing in the SCC
  • Only a limited number of cases can appear before the SCC, to appeal a decision rendered by provincial appeal courts
  • Generally only decide on cases that have great importance to Canadian society
  • Also gives advice to lower courts
  • SCC decisions are the “ultimate expression and applications of Canadian law”
  • SCC decisions are binding on all lower courts

Court of Appeal — Highest court in each province; appeal court

  • Each province or territory has a court of appeal
  • Hears criminal and civil appeals from all lower courts in the province
  • Has panel of 3-5 judges
  • Judges are appointed by the federal government

Superior (Supreme) Court — Trial court in each province

  • Names vary between provinces (Ex. Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, Quebec Superior Court, Supreme Court of British Columbia, Ontario Superior Court of Justice)
  • Judges appoint by federal government
  • “inherent jurisdiction” — can hear any case for any matter unless there is a designated court for the matter in question
  • Criminal cases: more serious cases under the Criminal Code; judge and jury hears the case unless both the Crown (prosecutor) and the accused agree to a judge only trial
  • Civil cases: Hears all civil cases involving damages of over $25K, usually heard by a judge only for these cases; Also administers different courts * — Family court, divisional court, small claims court –> usually heard by a judge only

Provincial Court — lower level court in each province/territory

  • Many in each province; again, the name varies between provinces (reasons beyond my comprehension)
  • Usually dealing with summary criminal charges, bail hearings, as well as trials
  • Deal with cases falling under provincial statues (ex. highway traffic act –> traffic tickets)
  • Judges and Justices of the Peace are provincially appointed
  • Judges: deal with variety of family law cases (except divorce or property issues, these belong in Superior Court of Justice family court division), and majority of summary conviction offence (less serious)
  • Justices of the Peace: deal with provincial offences (traffic court), bail hearings, search warrants
    • Justices of the Peace does not have to have a legal career background, but they have to be appointed



** Superior Court of Justice (Ontario) was a bit tricky for me to understand at first because it actually branches out or administers 3 other courts: The divisional court, the family court, and the Small Claims Court.  The best way I can describe this structure is that each of the three branches of courts serve different functions and have very specific jurisdiction over what matters they can deal with and what they cannot. So while it technically belongs on the Superior Court of Justice level, the three courts are separate, and depending on what the matter concerns, they will be heard at different courts. I will do another post next week outlining their different functions and jurisdictions.

The court structure can be quite complex and it definitely goes way behind how much a blog post can cover. However, I do want to make sure I do a basic overview first before getting into more details later on. In the meantime, if you have questions or comments please make sure to refer to official government websites I’ve linked in this post, or ask away in the comment section below.

Have a wonderful week everyone! Brrrrr it’s getting cold here in Toronto!

Source: Introduction to Law in Canada Ontario Edition, Olivo. L, Caputus Press 2014 ISBN: 9781553223047

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