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The court system: what to know

Supreme Court of Canada at Night. Photo by Getty Images

For those of us who have never had to fight a traffic ticket or had a run-in with the law of any kind, going to court for the first time can be very intimidating.

Relax, that’s why we’re here.


Canada’s legal system is complex, featuring two official languages (English and French), two legal traditions in common law and civil law (only for Quebec), two separate systems for processing cases — civil and criminal — and a multi-tiered court system that handles federal, provincial, and municipal laws.

Division of powers: Federal, provincial, and municipal

Canada is a parliamentary democracy based on the British form of government. There are three levels of government in Canada: federal, provincial, and municipal. Each level of government sets certain types of laws and is responsible for certain types of issues.

Generally, here are the areas each level of government oversees:

  • Federal: criminal law; aboriginal issues; income taxes; and regulations affecting matters that are national or international.
  • Provincial/territorial: family law; health law; labour standards; education; social services; and housing.
  • Municipal: smoking in public places; zoning; parking by-laws; and property taxes.

Going to court

If it’s a traffic violation such as speeding, you will be appearing in provincial court. If, however, you’ve been charged with a major crime like sexual assault, then you’re likely headed to superior court.

If you were charged with committing a crime against the state such as terrorism or espionage, your case would be heard in a federal court.

Here’s a breakdown of the various types of courts and the cases they oversee.

Starting a lawsuit

Starting a lawsuit is a very serious endeavour with real consequences for all sides. You are accusing the person you are suing of either failing to take the care or precautions that should have been taken, or doing something that should not have been done. While it is possible to bring a lawsuit without legal representation, in most cases it is advisable to seek the assistance of a lawyer.

The most common lawsuits fall into three broad categories:

  • Breach of contract: this means that you had an oral or written agreement with someone and they failed to perform certain tasks or obligations. You may also sue for financial loss caused by a defective product arising from the implied promises of quality or performance.
  • Personal injury: You may have been injured in an automobile accident, by slipping and falling in a store or on a sidewalk, by a doctor or other professional, by a defective product, or by a person who intentionally or accidentally hurt you.
  • Defamation: If your reputation or that of your business was damaged arising from a false statement someone made about you to others, you may sue for damages. Libel is defamation by the printed word or some permanent form, while slander is spoken.

Criminal trials

Criminal trials are held in either provincial court or in superior court, depending on the specific offence a person has been charged with. Generally, more serious offences are held in superior courts before a judge or a judge and a jury, and the less serious offences are held in the provincial courts before a judge only. If your trial is being held in a superior court, you will likely have a preliminary hearing before your trial to determine whether there is enough evidence against you to hold a formal trial.

At trial, the Crown prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged with an offence is guilty. If there is any reasonable doubt about whether the person is guilty, they must be acquitted.

Small claims court

Small claims court is a sort of “do-it-yourself” system for small-scale lawsuits. It’s more informal and cost-effective than other courts. It employs simpler rules you can easily represent yourself without a lawyer.

Claim forms are typically a simple fill-in-the-blank style and costs to file claims can be as low as $25, depending on where you live and what you’re suing for.

Hiring a lawyer

Don't be intimidated by the thought of hiring a lawyer. Their job is to help you find the best solution to your legal issue. Here are some examples of when it’s best to hire a lawyer:

  • You were in a car accident, slip and fall, or other accident and suffered an injury.
  • You were accused of a crime, DUI, or other violation.
  • You’re facing a family problem such as divorce or child custody dispute.

Legal Aid

Legal Aid is a federally- and provincially-funded program that ensures “economically disadvantaged” Canadians have access to a lawyer or other legal resources should they be accused of serious criminal offences that could result in jail time.

Appearing in court

Following an arrest, a person charged with an offence may appear in court a number of times before attending their actual trial. The accused may be required to attend court for a bail hearing, a set date, a preliminary hearing, and pre-trial hearings or motions.

Read more:

Justice Canada

Structure of the Courts