Canada’s Legal System
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by People's Law School in February 2023.|
In this section, you will learn the role courts and tribunals play in applying Canada's laws.
Two kinds of law: Criminal law and civil law
Broadly speaking, laws in Canada fall into two categories: criminal law or civil law.
Criminal law deals with crimes, like assault or theft. The Criminal Code is the main law setting out what amounts to a crime and how it should be dealt with. This law is the same all across Canada. The purpose of criminal law is to make sure people stay safe and secure. If someone is charged and found guilty of a crime, they face legal consequences ranging from a discharge to a fine to time in jail.
Civil law deals with all other legal issues, like having a contract with someone or buying property. Family law is another kind of civil law. The purpose of civil law is to make sure that we are fair in our dealings with each other.
Courts apply the laws
A court is a place where legal matters are decided, usually by a judge. Courts exist to provide a way to apply the laws in a fair and rational manner. Courts have a variety of functions. For example, they enforce criminal law and they resolve civil law disagreements among people.
Two very important principles are fundamental to the Canadian court system:
- the courts are separate from government
- judges are independent
The courts are separate from government
In Canada, the courts are separate from the government. This arrangement is often called "a separation of powers."
The courts decide how the laws that are made by the government apply to individuals in everyday situations. A key purpose of the courts is to protect the rights and freedoms of everyone in Canada.
When judges make a decision in court, they apply the law made by our elected representatives. They are also guided by what other judges have decided in previous similar cases.
Judges are independent
In Canada, judges are free to make decisions without interference or influence from any source, including government.
It is our constitutional right to have our legal issues decided by a fair, independent decision-maker. Judges have a responsibility to listen to both sides of a case and then to make fair decisions based on the law, the facts, and the evidence before them.
If a judge felt pressure from the government — or anyone else — to decide a case in a particular way, the result would be unfair. The rights of individual citizens would not be protected.
Courts in British Columbia
In BC there are three levels of court:
- Provincial Court
- Supreme Court
- Court of Appeal
Provincial Court of British Columbia
The Provincial Court is the first level of court. It deals with:
- most cases about criminal law matters
- most types of family cases, including those involving child protection
- civil cases dealing with claims between $5,000 and $35,000 (smaller claims of up to $5,000 are brought to an online tribunal, which is like a court but less formal)
- cases that involve traffic offences
“Last year, I loaned $10,000 to a friend to help him buy a used car. He agreed to pay me $150 per month, plus interest, until the loan was paid back. We even wrote this down. It’s been over a year and he hasn’t made any payments. He doesn’t answer my texts or calls. I’m starting a small claims case against him in Provincial Court for the money he owes me.”
– Ranjit, Prince George, BC
BC Supreme Court
The BC Supreme Court has the power to decide most legal cases. It hears:
- serious criminal cases (like murder)
- civil cases involving amounts over $35,000
- family cases of all types, including those dealing with divorce or dividing property owned by the family
- appeals of cases from the Provincial Court
Court of Appeal for British Columbia
The Court of Appeal is the highest level of court in BC. If someone believes a big mistake was made in their case by the BC Supreme Court, they may be able to appeal their decision to the Court of Appeal. Usually, three judges from the Court of Appeal will hear the appeal.
The federal court system is separate from the provincial court system. The Federal Court of Canada deals with some types of cases that involve the rights of all Canadians, like immigration, citizenship, and income taxes.
An appeal from the Federal Court goes to the Federal Court of Appeal.
Supreme Court of Canada
The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa is the highest court in Canada. It hears appeals from the highest courts in each province and territory. It also hears appeals from the Federal Court of Appeal. Usually, someone has to ask the Supreme Court of Canada for permission to appeal — it’s not automatic. The court will decide if it will hear an appeal.
There is no appeal from a decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Tribunals are like courts but are less formal. They hear specific types of disputes. An example is the Employment Standards Tribunal, which hears complaints that workers in BC bring against their employers.
Tribunals are typically faster and cheaper than courts as a way to resolve disagreements. Similar to a court, each side at a tribunal has a chance to present its case, and an independent decision-maker makes a decision. The decision-maker is someone with specialized knowledge.
Here are more examples of issues where you can use a tribunal to resolve your dispute:
- small claims disputes up to $5,000
- employment and assistance benefits
- human rights claims
- landlord and tenant matters
- workers’ compensation benefits
|Learning about the Law © People's Law School is, except for the images, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.|