Our Court System in a Nutshell

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This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Steven Gjukich, Gilchrist & Company in March 2018.

Trial courts hear evidence and decide cases. British Columbia has two levels of trial court, Provincial Court and Supreme Court. Learn which type of cases each of these courts handle.

What you should know

Most cases start in Provincial Court

There are provincial courts in nearly 100 communities in British Columbia. Provincial Court has the following four main parts or divisions:

  • Criminal Division, known as Criminal Court
  • Family and Youth Division, sometimes called Family Court and Youth Court
  • Small Claims Division, known as Small Claims Court
  • Traffic Division, or Traffic Court

Criminal Court deals with crime

A person accused of a crime makes a first appearance in Criminal Court. If the person is in jail, a judge decides whether to release the person or keep them in jail until their trial. For less serious crimes, the trial is also held in this court. At the trial, evidence is presented and a decision made about whether the accused is guilty of the crime.

For more serious crimes, the accused person may be able to choose a trial in Criminal Court or in BC Supreme Court. The most serious crimes, like murder and treason, must be tried in Supreme Court. But even for those cases, a Provincial Court judge will still hold a preliminary inquiry to decide if there's enough evidence to have a trial in Supreme Court. For more on the criminal court process, see our information on defending yourself against a criminal charge.

Family and Youth Division handles family and youth cases

Family problems like custody and access, child and spousal support, and family violence cases are dealt with in Family Court. For details, see our information on Family Court.

Youth Court handles criminal cases involving young people aged 12 to 17. Our information on youth justice trials explains proceedings in this court.

Civil disputes under $35,000

In a civil case, one party in a conflict says they suffered damage as a result of conduct of another party. Examples include a contract dispute, a car accident claim, a claim to recover a debt, or a conflict between family members about who inherits property.

In a civil case, one party files court documents to start the lawsuit. The other party can file documents to put forward their own position. If the parties can’t settle their case, it goes to trial, where each side presents evidence and the court decides the outcome of the case.

For civil disputes worth between $5,000 and $35,000, the case can be brought in Small Claims Court. This court is designed for people to act for themselves; for example, all the forms are in plain language. For more, see our information on Small Claims Court.

Claims of $5,000 and less are dealt with by the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This tribunal is an online system people can use without the help of a lawyer.

Traffic Court handles traffic and some other offences

If someone disputes a ticket for a driving offence under provincial laws (such as speeding, distracted driving, or driving without insurance), a hearing will be set in Traffic Court.

This court also handles some other offences under provincial laws, such as trespass or liquor offences, as well as bylaw offences like zoning and building code violations.

BC Supreme Court deals with serious criminal and civil trials

BC Supreme Court handles both criminal and civil cases. This court is where the most serious criminal trials, for murder and treason, are heard. Other serious criminal cases involving drugs, rape and attempted murder are usually tried here too.

For civil cases, Supreme Court hears claims for more than $35,000 and some cases for less than that where the law requires the claim to be brought in Supreme Court. For example, the law requires that a builders’ lien claim or an order for divorce be sought in Supreme Court.

Trials in Supreme Court can be in front of a judge, or a judge and jury.

BC has several Supreme Court “resident” judges. These judges also travel to other places throughout BC to hold trials. Cases in Supreme Court are usually complicated, so most people use lawyers, but they don’t have to.

BC Supreme Court also hears appeals of some Provincial Court decisions.

BC Court of Appeal hears appeals

The BC Court of Appeal is the highest court in BC. It doesn't hold trials. Instead, this court reviews decisions of trial courts if any of the people in a case disagree with the decision and appeal it. It hears appeals of civil and criminal cases from the BC Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal also hears appeals of some criminal cases from Provincial Court.

The Court of Appeal is in Vancouver, but it also travels to Victoria, Kamloops and Kelowna to hear cases.

Canada’s two federal courts

There are two federal courts in Canada: the Federal Court of Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Federal Court of Canada has two parts and deals with federal laws. It consists of the Federal Court, which is a trial court, and the Federal Court of Appeal. The Federal Court holds trials for cases where the federal government is being sued or the dispute deals with federal laws (such as immigration or income tax laws). The Federal Court of Appeal hears appeals of decisions by the Federal Court.

The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest appeal court in the country. Based in Ottawa, the Supreme Court of Canada hears appeals from decisions of the BC Court of Appeal, from the appeal courts of other provinces, and from the Federal Court of Appeal. Usually, the Supreme Court must agree to hear an appeal — and it doesn't agree to hear every appeal that people request. In some cases, the right to appeal is automatic. Until recently, people often had to go to the court in Ottawa, but now the court hears some appeals by a live video link to a court in Vancouver.

Common questions

Are courts open to the public?

All courtrooms are normally open to the public, so you can attend and watch. You can walk in and no one will ask you what you’re doing, if you’re quiet and don't disturb the proceeding. Some high-profile trials (such as high-profile murder trials or gang trials) are not completely open to the public. They have intense screening of anyone who wants to attend.

Are there options other than court to resolve a dispute?

Going to court is one way to resolve a dispute. But there are other ways that can be cheaper, faster, and more effective. Learn about options for “alternative dispute resolution” in our information on resolving disputes without going to court.

Who can help

With more information

The BC Provincial Court website features guides on how to handle a case before the court, as well as past court decisions.

The BC Superior Courts website includes information for BC Supreme Court and BC Court of Appeal, including information for self-represented litigants appearing in those courts.

The Justice Education Society provides online help guide websites for all levels of court in BC.

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