Dispute Resolution – Canada’s Court System
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In this series of blogs, we will provide an overview of dispute resolution mechanisms in Canada. The first blog will focus on the court system in Canada.
Under the Constitution Act, 1867, the judiciary is separate from and independent of the executive and legislative branches of government. Judicial independence is a cornerstone of the Canadian judicial system. Judges make decisions free of influence and based solely on fact and law. Canada has provincial trial courts, provincial superior courts, provincial appellate courts, federal courts and a Supreme Court. Judges are appointed by the federal or provincial and territorial governments, depending on the level of the court.
Each province and territory (with the exception of Nunavut) has a provincial court. These courts deal primarily with criminal offences, family law matters (except divorce), traffic violations and provincial or territorial regulatory offences. Private disputes involving limited sums of money are resolved in the small claims divisions of the provincial courts. The monetary ceilings for the small claims division vary from province to province (e.g., British Columbia is set at C$35,000, Alberta is set at C$50,000, and Ontario is set at C$25,000).
The superior courts of each province and territory try the most serious criminal cases, as well as private disputes exceeding the monetary ceiling of the small claims divisions of the provincial courts. Although superior courts are administered by the provinces and territories, the federal government appoints and pays the judges of these courts.
In the Toronto Region of the Province of Ontario, the Superior Court of Justice maintains a Commercial List. Established in 1991, the Commercial List hears certain applications and motions in the Toronto Region involving a wide range of business disputes. It operates as a specialized commercial court that hears matters involving shareholder disputes, securities litigation, corporate restructuring, receiverships and other commercial disputes. Matters on the Commercial List are subject to special case management and other procedures designed to expedite the hearing and determination of complex commercial proceedings. In addition, judges on the Commercial List are experienced in commercial and insolvency matters.
Each province and territory has an appellate court that hears appeals from decisions of the superior courts and the provincial and territorial courts. Ontario also has a Divisional Court that serves as a court of first instance for the review of administrative action. It also hears appeals from provincial administrative tribunals, interlocutory decisions of judges of the Superior Court and appeals from the Superior Court involving limited sums of money (currently C$50,000 or less).
The Federal Court of Canada has limited jurisdiction. Its jurisdiction includes inter-provincial and federal provincial disputes, intellectual property proceedings, citizenship appeals, Competition Act cases, and cases involving Crown corporations or departments or the government of Canada. The Federal Court, Trial Division hears decisions at first instance. Appeals are heard by the Federal Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court of Canada is the final court of appeal from all other Canadian courts. It hears appeals from the appellate courts in each province and from the Federal Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court of Canada has jurisdiction over disputes in all areas of the law, including constitutional law, administrative law, criminal law and civil law. There is a right of appeal in certain criminal proceedings, but in most cases leave must first be obtained. Leave to the Supreme Court of Canada may be granted in cases involving an issue of public importance or an important issue of law.