How the Courts are Organized

Each type of court has its own jurisdiction, which means that it has the authority to decide specific types of cases. Canada has four levels of court.

  1. Provincial and territorial (lower) courts: These courts handle most cases that come into the system. They are established by provincial and territorial governments.
  2. Provincial and territorial superior courts: These are courts of plenary, or complete, jurisdiction established under section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867. They deal with more serious crimes and also hear appeals from provincial and territorial courts. The Federal Court is on the same level, but is responsible for deciding civil matters assigned to it by statute, such as immigration and patents.
  3. Provincial and territorial courts of appeal and the Federal Court of Appeal.
  4. The Supreme Court of Canada, which is the final court of appeal for Canada.

Provincial/territorial courts

Each province and territory has a provincial/territorial court and hears cases involving either federal or provincial/territorial laws.

In Nunavut, the Nunavut Court of Justice, which is Canada’s only single-level trial court, combines the power of the superior trial court and the territorial court so that the same judge can hear all cases that arise in the territory.

Provincial/territorial courts deal with:

  • most criminal offences, except the most serious ones;
  • family law matters (e.g., child support, child protection, adoption, but not divorce);
  • young persons from 12 to 17 years old in conflict with the law;
  • traffic and bylaw violations;
  • provincial/territorial regulatory offences;
  • claims involving money, up to a certain amount (set by the province or territory in question);
  • small claims (civil cases that resolve private disputes involving limited sums of money); and
  • all preliminary inquiries (hearings to determine whether there is enough evidence to justify a full trial in serious criminal cases).

Outline of Canada's Court System

Outline of Canada's Court System

Outline of Canada’s Court System – Text version

This chart provides an overview of the hierarchy of Canada’s Court System. It is arranged as follows:   

Courts

  • Supreme Court of Canada
    • Court Martial Appeal Court
      • Military Courts
    • Provincial/Territorial Courts of Appeals
      • Provincial/Territorial Superior Courts
        • Provincial/Territorial Courts
    • Federal Court of Appeal
      • Federal Court
      • Tax Court of Canada

Administrative Boards and Tribunals

  • Provincial/Territorial Administrative Tribunals
  • Federal Administrative Tribunals

Some courts at this level are dedicated to particular types of offences or groups of offenders. One example is the Drug Treatment Court. The object of these courts is to address the needs of non-violent offenders who are charged with criminal offences that were motivated by their addiction. Those who qualify are offered judicial supervision and treatment for their addiction, with the help of community support services.

Youth courts handle cases for young people 12 to 17 years old who are charged with an offence under federal youth justice laws. Youth courts provide protections appropriate to the age of the accused, including protecting his or her privacy. Any court at either the provincial/territorial or superior court level can be designated a youth court.

All provinces and territories have established Domestic Violence Courts so that the justice system can improve its response to incidents of spousal abuse, provide better support to victims, and make offenders more accountable. These courts do this by

  • decreasing court processing time;
  • increasing prosecution rates;
  • providing a focal point for programs and services for victims and offenders; and 
  • allowing police, Crown prosecutors, and, in some cases, the judiciary to specialize in domestic violence matters.

Provincial/territorial superior courts

Each province and territory has superior courts, which are courts of “inherent jurisdiction.” This means that they can hear cases in any area except when a statute or rule limits that authority. The superior courts try the most serious criminal and civil cases. These include divorce cases and cases that involve large amounts of money (the minimum is set by the province or territory in question). The jurisdiction of superior courts originally came from the first courts in England, whose authority over government actions was based on Magna Carta. Proceedings in superior courts are thus a continuation of a court process that dates right back to the beginnings of the common law system.

The superior courts also act as a court of first appeal for the provincial and territorial courts that the provinces and territories maintain. Although the provinces and territories administer superior courts, the federal government appoints and pays the judges.

Although there are permanent court houses and judicial centres in all of Canada’s provinces and territories, Canada’s population is scattered widely across huge expanses of land, and it may be difficult for individuals to travel to a court house to have their matter heard. In response, courts often travel "on circuit" to small or isolated areas.

For example, in Nunavut, most of the communities are small and isolated from Iqaluit, the capital, so the court travels to them. The circuit court includes a judge, a clerk, a court reporter, a prosecutor, and at least one defence attorney. Interpreters are hired in the communities when possible, or travel with the circuit court when necessary. The court holds regular sessions in Iqaluit and flies to about 85 percent of all 25 communities in Nunavut, as often as every six weeks or as seldom as every two years, depending on how often it’s needed.

Family courts

In most provinces and territories, the superior court has special divisions, such as the family division. Some superior courts have established specialized family courts to deal with specific family law matters, including divorce and property claims.

Several provinces (Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan) use unified family courts. This allows a single court to deal with all aspects of family law, using specialized superior court judges and services. These courts encourage constructive, non-adversarial techniques to resolve issues, and provide access to support services through community organizations. These services typically include such programs as parent-education sessions, mediation, and counselling.

Provincial/territorial courts of appeal

Each province and territory also has a court of appeal. These courts hear appeals from the decisions of the superior courts and the provincial/territorial courts. These can include commercial disputes, property disputes, negligence claims, family disputes, bankruptcies, and corporate reorganizations. Appeals are usually heard by a panel of three judges. The courts of appeal also hear constitutional questions that may be raised in appeals involving individuals, governments, or governmental agencies.

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