Dear Sir or Madam,
This week our theme is the judiciary, the structure of our courts. Today we will begin with an outline of the main levels of court in the country. These are the Superior Courts, Provincial Courts, Courts of Appeal, and Supreme Court.
The Superior Courts (known as the Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta and, for example, the Supreme Court of British Columbia) are the “courts of inherent jurisdiction”.1 They are the only level of court established in the BNA Act.2 These courts have jurisdiction over anything not delegated to other courts by legislation. This jurisdiction includes major criminal trials, divorce, and civil suits over large sums of money.3
The BNA Act allows for the provinces to establish provincial courts underneath the Superior Court.4 The Superior Courts delegate much work to the provincial courts. All criminal cases start at the provincial court level, and most are resolved there. The provincial court also handles matters such as traffic violations and civil suits up to a certain amount of money.5
Cases heard in these two lower levels of courts can appeal decisions to the Court of Appeal. In Alberta, the Court of Appeal is made up of the Chief Justice of Alberta and thirteen justices of appeal.6 They sit in panels of three to hear appeals and evaluate the lower court decisions for errors.7 Sometimes it takes a long time for a case to be heard by the Court of Appeal, and in the meantime the lower court judge has been promoted to the Court of Appeal. When this happens that justice is not allowed to hear the case.8
The BNA Act also allows the federal government to establish courts, especially courts of appeal, to improve the administration of justice.9 This power has allowed them to establish the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal, which handle federal matters such as immigration claims, intellectual property (e.g.: copyright and trademark), and appeals from federal administrative boards.10
The most important court created under this power is the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). The Supreme Court of Canada is a panel of nine judges headed by the Chief Justice of Canada.11 Currently that position is held by University of Alberta Faculty of Law Alumnus the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C. They need a minimum of five judges to sit, but often all nine will form a panel together.12 The Supreme Court hears appeals from civil and criminal laws from across Canada.13 People who want their cases heard by the SCC need to “apply for leave” (which means apply for permission) to appeal to the SCC. These can be referred by the Court of Appeal, the Lieutenant Governor in Council (i.e.: the provincial legislature or federal parliament), or the SCC itself.14 In addition to appeals from lower court cases, the SCC can also be called on to comment on the constitutionality of a piece of legislation.15
Our court system can seem complex and daunting to people unfamiliar with it. Today’s post gives a brief outline of only the most active branches of the judiciary. Each of these courts has much more complexity in their roles, and this doesn’t even include specialized courts like the Tax Court, or military courts. Some of these will be explored in more detail later this week.
Your Humble and Obedient Servants,
1Moin Yahya, Foundation to Law (Second Edition), Selected Course Material, (Faculty of Law, University of Alberta, 2015), at 35.
2Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, s 96, reprinted in RSC 1985, Appendix II, No 5.
3Supra note 1, at 34.
4Supra note 2, s 92(14).
5Supra note 1.
6Court of Appeal Act, RSA 2000, c C-30, s 3(1).
7Ibid, s 7.
8Ibid, s 11.
9Supra note 2, s 101.
10Supra note 1, at 37.
11Supreme Court Act, RSC 1985, c S-26, s 4.
12Ibid, s 25.
13Ibid, s 35.
14Ibid, ss 36, 37, and 40.
15Ibid, s 53.