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Certificate in Law: Intro to Basic Legal Concepts

This guide was designed for students in the Queen's Certificate in Law program.

Case Law and the Court System

The second main source of law is case law, which is law that is established through the judicial decisions of the courts (see Statutory Law and the Legislative Process for information on the first category, statutory law). Taken as a whole, the body of law created over time by the courts is called common law.

The role of the courts is to resolve disputes arising between individuals or between individuals and the State, as well as to interpret and apply both legislation passed by different levels of government and the common law.

The Hierarchy of the Courts

The hierarchy of the courts is an important aspect of the judicial system that allows decisions made by a lower court to be appealed (reviewed) by a higher court. 

The judicial system is also based on the concept of precedent—that cases with similar facts should be decided in a similar way. In the hierarchy, judges must follow the doctrine of stare decisis ("let the decision stand"), which requires them to follow the historical rulings of other judges who are higher in the judicial hierarchy of the same jurisdiction.

For example, a Supreme Court of Canada decision is binding on every other court below it (it must be followed). Conversely, a decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal is binding on the Ontario Superior Court, but is only persuasive to the Supreme Court of British Columbia because these courts are in different jurisdictions.

The following image provides an overview of the hierarchy of the courts (text-based version follows the image).

Visual of the hierarchy described below. The highest court is the Supreme Court of Canada.

Types of Courts

The following provides an overview of the four main categories of courts (click to expand each section).

This is the highest court in the Canadian court system and the final court of appeal. The Supreme Court hears appeals from every provincial or territorial court of appeal, as well as from the Federal Court of Appeal and the Court Martial Appeal Court.

Since the Supreme Court of Canada is the highest court of the country, it only hears appeals in matters of significant public importance.

Federal courts refer to any courts established by the federal government and include:

  • The Federal Court, which hears cases relating to matters under federal jurisdiction such as intellectual property, maritime, and immigration law.
  • The Tax Court of Canada, which hears appeals on tax matters.

The Federal Court of Appeal hears appeals from both of the above courts.

Each province and territory has its own system of courts that hear cases involving both federal and provincial/territorial laws. Some legal matters heard by these courts include most criminal offences and family law.

Depending on the province or territory, the lower court system may include multiple, specialized courts (e.g. small claims court, family court). Superior courts are above the lower courts in the hierarchy; note that they do not have a consistent naming convention across provinces and territories, and may be called the Supreme Court, the Court of Queen's Bench, or the Superior Court of Justice.

The highest courts in a province or territory are the courts of appeal, which deal with the most serious cases and can review the decisions of the superior and lower courts.

Boards and tribunals are quasi-judicial bodies that make decisions to resolve disputes relating to the interpretation and application of laws and regulations on the behalf of a government. They are not technically courts, but their decisions can be reviewed by the courts.

Some examples of administrative boards and tribunals include:

Note that the hierarchy diagram shows the appeal process can vary for boards and tribunal decisions. In Ontario, for example, board and tribunal decisions are generally appealed to the Divisional Court, which is a branch of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Civil and Criminal Cases

The distinction between criminal and civil court cases is important because there are different procedural implications for both types. That means that the process of taking the case through the court system will be different.

criminal case is one where a party has been accused of committing a crime under the Criminal Code. In criminal cases, the government (represented by the Crown) is considered to be the opposing party because the government pursues conviction through the courts on behalf of society. This is why criminal decisions are often identifiable by the party names, because one of them will be "R" (rex, which means the king, or formerly regina, which means the queen). The second party will be the name of the accused (the person accused of wrongdoing), who is always presumed innocent until proven guilty. 

In contrast, a civil case is one that seeks to resolve a legal dispute between individuals or corporations. In a civil case, a plaintiff sues a defendant for a specific wrongdoing. For example, breach of contract, personal injury, bankruptcy, or defamation suits would all be civil cases. 

The Government of Canada provides information on the different stages of procedure for each type of case: Civil and Criminal Cases.

Further Reading