What is the Supreme Court of Canada?
By: Vivian Nguyen
Published on: October 10 2022
In Canada, there are three levels of government— Federal, Provincial, and Municipal.
The federal government deals with issues that affect the whole country, including immigration, taxes, and international relations. Meanwhile, the provincial government is responsible for issues concerning a given province, such as education and health care. There are ten provincial and three territorial governments in Canada. While the head of the Canadian federal government is called the ‘Prime Minister,’ leaders of provincial governments are called ‘Premiers.’
Provincial governments grant power to municipal governments led by mayors in cities and towns. Municipal governments create by-laws that address issues like public transportation, garbage removal, and local police in their communities.
Understanding different aspects of Canada’s government can help you prepare for the Canadian citizenship test and broaden your knowledge about the country’s legal systems.
This article outlines the most powerful court in Canada, the Supreme Court, which overrules both the federal and the provincial governments in legal matters. Continue reading to learn more about Canada’s government.
What is the Supreme Court of Canada?
The Supreme Court of Canada is the country’s final court of appeal. In other words, it is the highest level of court in Canada. A court of law is a person or body of persons with judicial authority—the power to judge or administer justice ordered or enforced by a court—to solve legal disputes.
The Supreme Court of Canada has power over all legal matters in the country, including those of federal and provincial jurisdiction. What lies at the heart of the judicial system is a principle built on upholding prior judgments called, “appellate decisions.”
Historical Timeline of the Court
1867–1875: The Beginning
The Supreme Court was constituted in 1875 under the Supreme Court Act but its story begins with the British North America Act, 1867, the foundation of Canada’s Constitution. This law granted Parliament—which includes the institutions that create Canadian laws—to establish a “General Court of Appeal for Canada.”
Attempts in creating this general court of appeal were led by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his Conservative government in 1869 and 1870. However, many Liberal and Conservative members of Parliament at the time opposed the decision, arguing that the new court would undermine provincial rights.
1875–1949: Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
Before the Supreme Court of Canada, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council served as the country’s final court of appeal. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is a board of the British Privy Council that ruled over Britain’s colonial courts.
1981: The deciding vote for national independence
In 1981, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government initiated a deciding vote that forever changed the legal landscape in Canada. Up until this decision, Great Britain controlled all of Canada’s lawmaking decisions.
A majority vote in favour of separating Canada from British legal authority, for Ottawa to act independently from Britain rule, was passed by members of the Supreme Court. Although the country remains part of the British Commonwealth today, this crucial vote led to Canada’s complete independence as a self-governing country.
1982–present: The Charter of Rights and Freedoms
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the most recognized part of the country’s Constitution. Added in 1982, the Charter guarantees the rights of individuals which the Supreme Court used as a powerful judicial tool to interpret human rights and address criminal law.
Read this article from The Newcomer to learn more about your rights and freedoms in Canada.
The Nine Justices
Located in Ottawa, the Supreme Court of Canada is made up of nine justices who are appointed by the Canadian governor-in-council. The bench includes a chief justice and eight other judges who specialize in different types of law: criminal, civil, and corporate. This blend of judges ensures that decisions can be made with the best general interests in mind.
Responsibilities and roles of the court
Meeting in January, April, and October for three month-long sessions, the court judges and addresses concerns and questions from the federal and provincial governments relating to the Constitution. The Supreme Court of Canada hears anywhere between 70 to 90 appeals—requests for review by the court—yearly.
For criminal cases, the Supreme Court acts as a general court of appeal while civil cases need the court’s permission before they are presented. To paraphrase, the Supreme Court decides which cases are worth reviewing and which do not hold public or legal importance.
More often than not, the court delivers written decisions; rarely are decisions given orally from the bench.
The Supreme Debate
In the United States, there is ongoing resistance against the US Supreme Court. This tension continues to escalate, especially after the overturn of Roe v Wade, which restricts women’s rights to safe and legal abortions.
Traces of the debate on the limitations of judicial power exist in Canada. However, unlike its neighbour, the Supreme Court of Canada does not undergo as much criticism.
With that being said, the legal system in Canada is not perfect and there is still much work that needs to be done for visible minority groups and Indigenous communities in the country.