Courts and Other Bodies Under Federal Jurisdiction

The federal court system runs parallel to the provincial and territorial court systems and consists of the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal. The judges of these courts (as well as the Tax Court of Canada, described below) are based in Ottawa, but travel across the country to hear cases. They deal with certain matters specified in federal statutes (laws), such as immigration and refugee law, navigation and shipping, intellectual property, and tax. They can also deal with matters of national defence, security, and international relations.

The Federal Court

The Federal Court is Canada’s national trial court. It hears and decides federal legal disputes whose subject matter has been assigned to the Court by Parliament.

These disputes include

  • claims against the Government of Canada;
  • civil suits between private parties in federally-regulated areas; and
  • reviews of the decisions of most federal tribunals.

The Federal Court’s jurisdiction includes

  • interprovincial and many federal-provincial disputes;
  • immigration and refugee matters;
  • intellectual property proceedings (e.g., copyright);
  • citizenship appeals;
  • Competition Act cases; and
  • cases involving Crown corporations or departments of the Government of Canada.

The federal courts have the power to review decisions, orders, and other administrative actions of most federal boards, commissions, and tribunals. That means most federal government decisions can be challenged in a federal court. With some exceptions, those bodies may refer questions of law, jurisdiction, or practice to one of the federal courts at any stage of a proceeding.

In some areas of law, such as maritime law, the Federal Court shares jurisdiction with the provincial superior courts. It also has concurrent jurisdiction with respect to civil claims against the federal government.

The Federal Court of Appeal

The Federal Court of Appeal hears appeals from the Federal Court and the Tax Court of Canada, and judicial reviews of certain federal tribunals listed in the Federal Courts Act. Like provincial and territorial courts of appeal, its decisions can only be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Court hears most legal matters under federal jurisdiction or that involve the federal government.

It has three basic roles:

  1. to ensure that federal law is applied consistently throughout Canada;
  2. to conduct judicial reviews of specified federal decision makers, as listed in section 28 of the Federal Courts Act; and
  3. to provide an avenue of appeal from decisions of the Federal Court and the Tax Court of Canada.

Specialized Federal Courts

The federal government has created specialized courts to deal more effectively with certain areas of the law. These include the Tax Court of Canada and the courts that serve the military justice system: the military courts and the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada. These courts have been created by statute and can only decide matters that fall within the jurisdiction given to them by those statutes. The Tax Court thus deals with tax matters defined under the Tax Court of Canada Act and the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada hears appeals from courts martial.

The Tax Court of Canada

The Tax Court of Canada is a superior court that determines cases and appeals about matters that arise under federal tax and revenue legislation. The Tax Court of Canada hears disputes between the federal government and taxpayers after the taxpayer has pursued all other avenues provided for by the Income Tax Act. The Tax Court is independent of the Canada Revenue Agency and all other government departments.

Military Courts

Military courts, or courts martial, are established under the National Defence Act to hear cases involving the Code of Service Discipline. The Code applies to all members of the Canadian Forces as well as civilians who accompany the Forces on active service. It lays out a system of disciplinary offences designed to further the good order and proper functioning of the Canadian Forces.

The Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada hears appeals from military courts. Judges in the Court Martial Appeal Court are selected from the federal courts and other superior courts throughout the country. Like other courts of appeal, a panel of three judges hears cases in the Court Martial Appeal Court.

The Supreme Court of Canada

The Supreme Court of Canada is the final court of appeal from all other Canadian courts. It has jurisdiction over disputes in all areas of the law. These include constitutional law, administrative law, criminal law, and civil law. The Court does not hold trials, but hears appeals from all other Canadian appeal courts.

The Court consists of a Chief Justice and eight other justices. Members of the Court are appointed by the federal government as new vacancies occur. Three judges traditionally come from Ontario, two from Western Canada, and one from the Atlantic provinces. In addition, the Supreme Court Act requires that at least three judges must come from Quebec.

The Supreme Court sits in Ottawa for three sessions a year - winter, spring, and fall. Each year the Supreme Court considers an average of between 500 to 600 applications for leave to appeal and hears 65 to 80 appeals.

What Kinds of Cases Does the Supreme Court of Canada Hear?

The Supreme Court of Canada only hears cases that it considers to be of public importance and to have national significance. That could mean a case that 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 country’s highest court. In limited instances, there may also be an appeal as of right. Judgements of the Supreme Court are listed at http://www.scc-csc-gc.ca/home-accueil/index-eng.aspx.

Before a case can reach the Supreme Court of Canada, it must have used up all available appeals at other levels of court. Even then, the court usually 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. They then grant or deny the request without providing reasons for the decision.

Did you know?

Each year the Supreme Court considers an average of between 500 to 600 applications for leave to appeal and hears 65 to 80 appeals.

The right to appeal is automatic in certain situations. For instance, no leave is required in criminal cases where a judge on the panel of a court of appeal has disagreed, or dissented, on how the law should be interpreted. It is also not required when 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 can also be asked by the Governor in Council to hear references. These are important questions of law, such as the constitutionality or interpretation of federal or provincial legislation, on which the Court is asked to give its opinion before an actual legal dispute arises. The federal government may ask the Court to consider questions on any important matter of law or fact, especially about how to interpret the Constitution. The Court may also be asked to interpret federal or provincial/territorial legislation or the powers of Parliament or the legislatures. Provincial and territorial courts of appeal may also be asked to hear references from their respective governments, which are then sometimes appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Administrative Tribunals and Boards

Different kinds of administrative tribunals and boards deal with disputes over the interpretation and application of laws and regulations, such as entitlement to employment insurance or disability benefits, refugee claims, and human rights.

Administrative tribunals are less formal than courts and are not part of the court system. However, they play an essential role in resolving disputes in Canadian society. Decisions of administrative tribunals may be reviewed in court to ensure that tribunals act fairly and according to the law.

Date modified: