Lesson 6: Federal Courts

Topic 1: Supreme Court of Canada

The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa is where it all stops. It is the final court of appeal for any dispute — civil or criminal — decided in any court in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada’s origins date back to 1875; however, until 1949, it was not the ‘court of last resort.’ Criminal cases could be appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of England until 1933 and civil cases until 1949.

In 1949, the court also added two judges to reach the total of nine that sit on the court now. This includes the Chief Justice of Canada and eight other judges who are appointed by the Governor in Council. These judges have practiced for 10 years or more before their appointment to the bench. By law three of the nine judges must be from Quebec and traditionally three are from Ontario, two are from the West and one is from Atlantic Canada.

It took some time for the first woman to sit on the court, but in 1982 Bertha Wilson broke the equality barrier. At present the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is Beverly McLachlin who has resided over the court since her appointment in 2000.

It is a lawyers’ court because the accused or the parties involved in the dispute hardly ever present their own cases to the court or are even present when the appeal is argued. The court does not hold trials but can hear appeals from civil, criminal or federal court cases. It has the authority to grant ‘leave to appeal,’ meaning that it can choose to hear a case and is not mandated by any law to hear an appeal from a superior court of a province.

The Supreme Court of Canada hears only a limited number and type of appeals. The court will normally choose to hear an appeal if the case involves an important application of the law that has national significance.

In its role as the ‘court of last resort’ its judgments set precedent for all of Canada’s lower courts and often impact the daily lives of Canadians. Since the inception of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the role of the Supreme Court has been more important as many of its judgments impact our legal, democratic and mobility rights in addition to our freedoms.

Judgments need not be unanimous but a majority ruling is given in each case with dissenting judges also offering a judgment http://www.scc-csc.gc.ca.