JUDICIAL SYSTEM OF CANADA
The Court system in Canada consists of four levels of court in Canada. The highest level is occupied by the Supreme Court of Canada, at the next level are the provincial courts of appeal, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Court Martial Appeal Court. Next to these courts there are the provincial and territorial superior courts, which deal with more serious crimes and also take appeals from provincial court judgments. On the same level, but responsible for different issues, is the Federal Court, Trial Division and the Tax Court of Canada has been established. Next to these courts there are provincial courts, which handle the great majority of cases that come into the system and it is in the lowest level. However administrative Tribunals are also established to look after the administrative matters both in federal as well as provincial level.
THE SUPREME COURT OF CANADA
The Supreme Court of Canada is the final court of appeal from all other Canadian courts. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over disputes in all areas of the law, including constitutional law, administrative law, criminal law and civil law.
Before a case can reach the Supreme Court, it must have used up all available appeals at other levels of court. Even then, the Court must grant permission or "leave" to appeal before it will hear the case. Leave applications are usually made in writing and reviewed by three members of the Court, who then grant or deny the request without providing reasons for the decision. Leave to appeal is not given routinely- it is granted only if the case involves a question of public importance; if it raises an important issue of law or mixed law and fact; or if the matter is, for any other reason, significant enough to be considered by the Supreme Court.
In certain situations, however, the right to appeal is automatic. For instance, no leave is required in criminal cases where a judge of a court of appeal has dissented on how the law should be interpreted. Similarly, where a court of appeal has found someone guilty who had been acquitted at the original trial, that person automatically has the right to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court of Canada also plays a special role as adviser to the federal government. The government may ask the Court to consider questions on:
- any important matter of law or fact, especially concerning the interpretation of the Constitution, and
the interpretation of any federal or provincial legislation or the powers of Parliament or the provincial legislatures or their respective governments. (Provincial and territorial courts of appeal may also be asked to hear references from the provincial and territorial governments.)
THE FEDERAL COURT OF CANADA
The Federal Court of Canada (FCC) is a court of law, equity and admiralty; it is essentially a superior court with civil jurisdiction. However, since the FCC was created by an Act of Parliament, it can only deal with matters specified in federal statutes. In contrast, provincial and territorial superior courts have jurisdiction in all matters except those specifically excluded by a statute.
The FCC is organized into a Trial Division and an Appeal Division. While based in Ottawa, the judges of both divisions conduct hearings across the country. The FCC's jurisdiction includes interprovincial and federal-provincial disputes, intellectual property proceedings (e.g. copyright), citizenship appeals, Competition Act cases, and cases involving Crown corporations or departments of the Government of Canada. As well, only the FCC can review decisions, orders and other administrative actions of federal boards, commissions and tribunals; these bodies may refer any question of law, jurisdiction or practice to the FCC at any stage of a proceeding.
For certain matters, such as maritime law, a case may be brought before either the FCC or a provincial or territorial superior court. In this respect, the FCC and the superior courts share jurisdiction.
SPECIALIZED FEDERAL COURTS
In order to deal more effectively with certain areas of the law, the federal government has created specialized courts, notably the Tax Court of Canada and courts that serve the Military Justice System. These courts have been created by statute and can only decide matters that fall within the jurisdiction given to them by statute.
The Tax Court of Canada
The Tax Court of Canada gives individuals and companies an opportunity to settle disagreements with the federal government on matters arising under federal tax and revenue legislation. The Tax Court of Canada primarily hears disputes between the federal government and taxpayers after the taxpayer has gone through all other options provided for by the Income Tax Act. The Tax Court is independent of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency and all other government departments. Its headquarters are in Ottawa, and it has regional offices in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
Military courts, or courts martial, were established under the National Defence Act to hear cases involving the Code of Service Discipline. The Code applies to all members of the Canadian Armed Forces as well as civilians who accompany the Armed Forces on active service. It lays out a system of disciplinary offences designed to further the good order and proper functioning of the Armed Forces.
The Court Martial Appeal Court hears appeals from military courts. Its function is comparable to that of a provincial appeal court, and it has the same powers as a superior court. Judges in the Court Martial Appeal Court are selected from the Federal Court of Canada and other superior courts throughout the country. Like other courts of appeal, the Court Martial Appeal Court hears cases as a panel of three.
COURTS OF APPEAL
Each province and territory has a court of appeal or appellate division that hears appeals from decisions of the superior courts and provincial courts. The courts of appeal also hear constitutional questions that may be raised in appeals involving individual litigants, or governments or governmental agencies.
PROVINCIAL/TERRITORIAL SUPERIOR COURTS
Each province and territory has superior courts. These courts are known by various names, including Superior Court of Justice, Supreme Court (not to be confused with the Supreme Court of Canada), High Court of Justice, and Court of Queen's Bench. But while the names may differ, the court system is essentially the same across the country.
The superior courts have "inherent jurisdiction," which means that they can hear cases in any area except those that are specifically limited to a lower court. The superior courts try the most serious criminal and civil cases, including divorce cases and cases that involve large amounts of money (the minimum is set by the province in question).
In most provinces, the superior court has special divisions, such as the family division. Some provinces have established specialized family courts at the superior court level to deal exclusively with certain family law matters, including divorce and property claims. The superior courts also act as a court of first appeal for the underlying court system that provinces and territories maintain.
Each province and territory has a provincial court, and these courts hear cases involving either federal or provincial laws. The names and divisions of these courts may vary from place to place, but their role is the same. Provincial courts deal with most criminal offences, family law matters (except divorce), young offenders (from 12 to 17 years old), traffic violations, provincial regulatory offences, and claims involving money, up to a certain amount (set by the province in question).
Private disputes involving limited sums of money may also be dealt with at this level in Small Claims courts. In addition, all preliminary inquiries, hearings to determine whether there is enough evidence to justify a full trial in serious criminal cases taken up before the provincial courts.
A number of courts at the provincial level are dedicated exclusively to particular types of offences or groups of offenders.
Youth courts handle cases where a young person, from 12 to 17 years old, is charged with an offence under federal young offenders laws. Procedures in youth court provide protections appropriate to the age of the accused, including privacy protections. Courts at either the provincial or superior court level can be designated youth courts.
Some provinces and territories (such as Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and the Yukon) have established Domestic Violence Court programs. These programs provide various services to victims, including specialized investigations by the police, prosecution of repeat offenders by specially trained Crown attorneys, and support through the Victim/Witness Assistance Program. When a case does go to trial, it is held before a provincial court judge.
Many disputes over administrative rules and regulations relating to employment insurance, disability benefits, refugee claims or human rights are dealt with outside the court system by various tribunals and boards. Administrative tribunals may resemble courts, but they are not in fact part of the court system. Nonetheless, they play an essential role in resolving disputes in Canadian society.
The procedure before administrative bodies is usually less formal than that in the courts. However, the courts exercise a supervisory role over administrative tribunals, which may in turn refer questions to the courts. The courts ensure that tribunals remain within their responsibilities under the law and that their procedures are fair.
ADDRESS OF THE CANADIAN COURTS
SUPREME COURT OF CANADA
301 Wellington St.
FEDERAL COURT OF CANADA
Courts Administration Service
Registries of the Federal Courts
90 Elgin Street
TAX COURT OF CANADA
Registry of the Tax Court of Canada
200 Kent Street