Canada’s Court System

Canada’s courts system is multifaceted. Each province and territory has its own courts, as well as courts that have national jurisdiction. The Supreme Court of Canada presides over the entire system.

The CSCJA represents judges, sitting and retired, who serve on the superior courts and courts of appeal of each province and territory, as well as on the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Tax Court of Canada.


Structure of the Courts

Provincial and territorial (lower) courts: These courts have the power to deal with every criminal offence except the most serious offences, such as murder and piracy, and conduct pre-trial hearings, called preliminary hearings, in criminal cases destined for trial in superior court. They also handle violations of provincial and territorial laws. In Quebec, this level of court also deals with civil matters involving up to $70,000 and disputes over provincial taxes.

Provinces and territories have established Small Claims Courts to resolve civil actions involving small amounts of money. Youth Courts deal with young persons between the ages of 12 and 18 charged with criminal offences.

The provinces and territories appoint and pay judges who serve in the courts that form the lower tier of the court system.

Superior courts: Superior courts handle criminal offences, divorces, civil cases involving large amounts of money and Charter challenges, and review the decisions of administrative tribunals and some lower courts. Each province/territory except Nunavut has two levels of superior court: one to hear trials and the other to hear appeals. Rulings made by judges at the trial level can be appealed to the appellate level, either called the Court of Appeal or the Appeal Division, which is the highest court within the province or territory.

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.

The Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal handle issues that arise under federal laws and appeals from the decisions of federal tribunals. The Tax Court deals specifically with disputes between taxpayers and the federal government over tax assessments. The Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada hears appeals from military courts.

The federal government appoints and pays the superior court judges. Provinces and territories, however, provide courthouses and other facilities and support staff for the trial and appeal divisions of their jurisdiction’s superior court.

Supreme Court of Canada: The Supreme Court of Canada, our highest court, is based in Ottawa and consists of nine judges, including the Chief Justice of Canada, who are appointed by the Governor in Council and all of whom must have been either a judge of a superior court or a member of at least 10 years’ standing of the bar of a province or territory. The Supreme Court has the power to review lower-court rulings on any legal issue but limits its docket to about 100 cases a year that involve issues of national importance.

Find out more about Canada’s court system on the Department of Justice Canada’s website.