How Does Canada’s Court System Work?

Courts in Canada help people resolve disputes fairly – whether they are between individuals, or between individuals and the state. At the same time, courts interpret and pronounce law, set standards, and decide questions that affect all aspects of Canadian society.

Canada’s judiciary is one branch of our system of government, the others being the legislature and the executive. Whereas the judiciary resolves disputes according to law – including disputes about how legislative and executive powers are exercised – the legislature (Parliament) has the power to make, alter and repeal laws. The executive branch (in particular, the prime minister and ministers, the public service, as well as a variety of agencies, boards, and commissions) is responsible for administering and enforcing the laws.

The courts interpret and apply the Constitution, as well as legislation passed by both levels of government. They also develop and apply the common law.

Independent courts are the hallmark of a strong democratic society.

Canada’s system of courts is complex. 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 courts’ primary task is administering justice – that is, ensuring that disputes are settled and crimes are prosecuted fairly and in accordance with Canada’s legal and constitutional structure. The provinces and territories are responsible for providing everything the courts under their jurisdiction need, from building and maintaining the courthouses, to providing staff and resources, such as interpreters, court reporters to prepare transcripts, sheriffs, and registry services, to paying provincial/territorial court judges. The federal government appoints and pays judges for the superior courts in each province, as well as judges at the federal level. It is also responsible for the administration of the Supreme Court of Canada and federally created courts.

Most disputes are settled before they are heard by a judge.

Courts are not the only mechanism for settling differences between people. Less formal processes include alternative dispute resolution, private commercial arbitration, and appearing before administrative boards and tribunals. Even for issues that never get to court, court decisions influence people’s choices and actions. They provide guidance on what the law is, and how people should conduct themselves to ensure they are in compliance with it.

In the sections that follow we explain the structure of the court system – how the courts are organized and how the various elements connect to one another. The final section looks at some of the principles and institutions that help keep Canada’s court system fair and independent.