How the Law Works in Canada
In Canada, our law comes primarily from two sources: legislation and case law. Legislation is made by legislative bodies and case law is made by the courts.
What is legislation?
Often when someone talks about a law, they are referring to legislation, which are laws passed by governmental legislative bodies.
Legislative bodies include the federal parliament, provincial legislatures such as the Legislative Assembly of BC, and municipal councils such as the city of Vancouver or the village of Oliver. These legislative bodies pass laws, which are also referred to as legislation. Legislation includes laws that are referred to as acts or statutes, as well as regulations. Regulations outline the rules that go with specific acts. For example, the Compassionate Care Leave Regulation is one of the rules under the Employment Standards Act.
Generally, you’ll want to find the most up-to-date, current versions of laws to help with your case. You can find links to current legislation on the Clicklaw page Laws, Cases & Rules.
There are federal laws, which apply Canada-wide, and provincial laws, which apply only in that province. The federal government controls laws such as criminal law, banking and defence. The provincial governments control laws such as education and health. Sometimes provincial laws and federal laws overlap. For example, there are both provincial and federal laws related to family matters.
Municipalities are given power by provincial legislatures to pass bylaws about local matters such as zoning, parking and noise. Again, sometimes laws may overlap. For example, if you want to find out what the law says about prostitution in Vancouver, you need to check both the federal criminal code and the municipal anti-soliciting bylaw.
First Nations with treaties, such as Tsawwaassen and Nisga’a are self-governing. They have their own constitution and laws. Indian bands which are still governed by the federal Indian Act can pass bylaws for their band.
Good starting points to learn more about laws include:
- The subject guides BC Legislation and Federal Legislation from Courthouse Libraries BC.
- The book Legislation Made Easy. It explains the legislative process in a simple, easy-to-understand manner. It is available in most public libraries.
- A Guide to Legislation and Legislative Process in British Columbia from the BC Ministry of Justice. This explains the process in some depth.
- Learning about the Law by the People's Law School. A source of basic legal information aimed at newcomers to Canada.
- The web page By-laws from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
Also see the section in this guide How Do I Find the Laws That Concern My Legal Problem?
What is case law?
Canada (except for Quebec) uses a system of law called “common law”. Common law means that courts are bound to follow the principles established by previous courts in similar cases dealing with similar facts. Finding case law similar to your own situation will help you understand how the courts may treat your own circumstances and the strength of your position in a dispute.
Case law is also referred to as “judge-made law”. Judge-made law refers to written decisions, reasons for judgment, judgments, and precedents. A case law decision reports the judge’s decision. A case law decision is not a word-for-word transcript of the entire courtroom proceedings. It does not contain any of the files from the court proceeding.
For more information on case law:
- Visit CanLII, the website of the Canadian Law Information Institute. At the home page, you can select by province, e.g. British Columbia. This website provides free access to court judgments and tribunal decisions as well as statutes and regulations from all Canadian jurisdictions.
- The CanLII Primer: Legal Research Principles and CanLII Navigation for Self-Represented Litigants has a chapter on “The System of Precedent”.
- Also see the section in this guide How Do I Find Case Law?.
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Courthouse Libraries BC staff, October 2015.|
|Beginner's Guide to Finding Legal Information © Courthouse Libraries BC 2015 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|