Canadian Court Structure

At the International Institute for Transcribers and Court Reporters, we want our students to be familiar with the court structure in their country of study.  This is an overview of what the court structure is in Canada.

  • Constitutional authority for the judicial system in Canada is divided between the federal and provincial governments in this way:  the federal government has the exclusive authority to appoint and pay the judges of the superior or upper-level courts in the provinces.
  • Parliament also has the authority to establish a general court of appeal and courts for the better administration of the laws of Canada.  It has used this authority to create the Supreme Court of Canada, the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal, as well as the Tax Court.  In addition, as part of its criminal-law power, Parliament has exclusive authority over the procedure in criminal courts.  Federal authority for criminal law and procedure ensures fair and consistent treatment of criminal behaviour across the country.  The provinces have jurisdiction over the administration of justice in the provinces, including the organization and maintenance of the civil and criminal provincial courts and civil procedure in those courts.

Federal Courts:

The Constitution Act of 1867 authorized Parliament to establish a general court of appeal for Canada as well as any additional courts for better administration of the laws of Canada.

The Supreme Court of Canada serves as the final court of appeal in Canada.  Its nine judges represent the five major regions of the country, but three of them must be from Quebec, in recognition of the civil law system.  As the highest court in the country, it hears appeals from decisions of the appeal courts in all the provinces and territories, as well as from the Federal Court of Appeal.  Supreme Court judgments are final.

Ordinarily, parties must apply to the judges of the Supreme Court for permission (or leave) to appeal.  In certain criminal cases, the right to an appeal is assured.

The second function of the Supreme Court is to decide important questions concerning the Constitution and controversial or complicated areas of private and public law.  The government can also ask the Supreme Court for its opinion on important legal questions.

The federal government also established the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal, and the Tax Court.  The Federal Court specializes in areas such as intellectual property, maritime law and federal-provincial disputes, while the Tax Court specializes in tax cases.  The Federal Court of Appeal reviews decisions of both these courts, as well as federally appointed administrative tribunals such as the Immigration Appeal Board and the National Parole Board.

Provincial and Territorial Courts:

Although the names of the courts are not identical in each province, the court system is roughly the same across Canada.  There are two levels:  provincial courts and superior courts.

Provincial Courts:

Provincial courts try most criminal offences and, in some provinces, civil cases involving small amounts of money.  Provincial courts may also include specialized courts such as youth courts, family courts and small claims court.  The provincial governments appoint the judges for provincial courts.

For instance, the Ontario Court of Justice is one of two trial courts in Ontario (together with the Superior Court of Justice) that make up the court of Ontario.  The Ontario Court of Justice is composed of provincially appointed judges and justices of the peace.

As a “statutory” court (a court created by statute), the Ontario Court of Justice has that jurisdiction which is specifically given to it by the laws of Ontario and Canada.  In broad terms, the justices of the peace of the court have jurisdiction with respect to provincial offences, bail hearings and search warrants.  Judges of the court deal with a wide range of family law cases (including child protection, custody, access, support and adoption) as well as the overwhelming majority of criminal charges laid within a province.

Superior Courts:

Superior courts, the highest level in a province, have power to review the decisions of the provincial or lower courts.  The federal government appoints the judges to these courts, and their salaries are set by Parliament.

Superior courts are divided into trial level and appeal level.  The trial level hears civil and criminal cases and has authority to grant divorces.  The appeal level hears civil and criminal appeals from the superior trial court.  These levels may be arranged as two separate courts:  the trial court named the Supreme Court or the Court of Queen’s Bench and the appeal court called the Court of Appeal.  In some provinces there is a single court, generally called a Supreme Court, with a trial division and an appeal division.

In Canada, the courts deal with both civil and criminal cases.  In civil or private cases involving breach of contract or other claims of harm (torts), the courts apply common-law principles in nine provinces and the territories.  In Quebec, courts apply the Quebec Civil Code.  In criminal or public cases, on the other hand, the common law is applied throughout Canada.

Administrative Boards and Tribunals:

Many administrative rules and regulations are often dealt with outside formal trials.  Disputes concerning such matters as broadcasting licenses, employment insurance, occupational safety standards or health regulations may be reviewed by federal, provincial or territorial government departments or by special administrative boards like the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, labour relations boards, tenancy tribunals, and refugee tribunals.

Procedure before these administrative bodies is usually simpler and less formal than in the courts.  However, to ensure that such bodies exercise only the authority given to them by law and that their procedures are fair, the courts may review their decisions and proceedings.  In the case of federal boards, the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal conduct this review.