Federal Courts

Canada's Court System

The basic role of courts in Canada is to help people resolve disputes fairly and with justice, whether the matter is between individuals or between individuals and the state. In the process, courts interpret and establish law, set standards, and raise questions that affect all aspects of Canadian society.

Canada's system of courts is complex – like the society it serves. There are several levels and types of court, and questions of jurisdiction can be difficult to sort out, especially since courts that share the same functions may go by different names. Both the federal government and the provincial and territorial governments pass laws, and they also share the administration of justice, but the relationship is not simple.


There are basically four levels of court in Canada.

First there are provincial/territorial courts, which handle the great majority of cases that come into the system.

Second are the provincial/territorial superior courts. These courts deal with more serious crimes and also take appeals from provincial/territorial court judgments.

On the same level, but responsible for different issues, is the Federal Court.

At the next level are the provincial/territorial courts of appeal and the Federal Court of Appeal, while the highest level is occupied by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Administrative Tribunals

Many disputes over administrative rules and regulations – relating, for instance, to employment insurance, disability benefits, refugee claims or human rights – are dealt with outside the court system by various tribunals and boards. Administrative tribunals may resemble courts, but they are not in fact part of the court system. Nonetheless, they play an essential role in resolving disputes in Canadian society.

The procedure before administrative bodies is usually less formal than that in the courts. However, the courts exercise a supervisory role over administrative tribunals, which may in turn refer questions to the courts. The courts ensure that tribunals remain within their responsibilities under the law and that their procedures are fair.


The Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal are essentially superior courts with civil jurisdiction.

However, since the Courts were created by an Act of Parliament, they can only deal with matters specified in federal statutes (laws).

In contrast, provincial and territorial superior courts have jurisdiction in all matters except those specifically excluded by a statute.

The Federal Court is the trial-level court; appeals from it are heard by the Federal Court of Appeal.

While based in Ottawa, the judges of both Courts conduct hearings across the country.

The Courts’ jurisdiction includes interprovincial and federal-provincial disputes, intellectual property proceedings (e.g. copyright), citizenship appeals, Competition Act cases, and cases involving Crown corporations or departments of the Government of Canada.

As well, only these Courts have jurisdiction to review decisions, orders and other administrative actions of federal boards, commissions and tribunals; these bodies may refer any question of law, jurisdiction or practice to one of the Courts at any stage of a proceeding.

For certain matters, such as maritime law, a case may be brought either before the Federal Court or Federal Court of Appeal, or before a provincial or territorial superior court. In this respect, the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal share jurisdiction with the superior courts.


The Supreme Court of Canada is the final court of appeal from all other Canadian courts. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over disputes in all areas of the law, including constitutional law, administrative law, criminal law and civil law.

The Court consists of a Chief Justice and eight other judges, all appointed by the federal government. The Supreme Court Act requires that at least three judges must come from Quebec. Traditionally, of the other six judges, three come from Ontario, two from western Canada, and one from the Atlantic provinces. The Supreme Court sits in Ottawa for three sessions a year – winter, spring and fall.

Before a case can reach the Supreme Court of Canada, it must have used up all available appeals at other levels of court. Even then, the Court must grant permission or "leave" to appeal before it will hear the case. Leave applications are usually made in writing and reviewed by three members of the Court, who then grant or deny the request without providing reasons for the decision. Leave to appeal is not given routinely – it is granted only if the case involves a question of public importance; if it raises an important issue of law or mixed law and fact; or if the matter is, for any other reason, significant enough to be considered by the country’s Supreme Court.

In certain situations, however, the right to appeal is automatic. For instance, no leave is required in criminal cases where a judge on the panel of a court of appeal has dissented on how the law should be interpreted. Similarly, where a court of appeal has found someone guilty who had been acquitted at the original trial, that person automatically has the right to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of Canada also plays a special role as adviser to the federal government. The government may ask the Court to consider questions on any important matter of law or fact, especially concerning interpretation of the Constitution. It may also be asked questions on the interpretation of federal or provincial/territorial legislation or the powers of Parliament or the legislatures. (Provincial and territorial courts of appeal may also be asked to hear references from their respective governments.)

Supreme Court Judgments

The Federal Court

The Federal Court was created in 1971 under the authority of s. 101 of the Constitution Act, 1867 for the "better administration of the laws of Canada". It is a successor to the Exchequer Court of Canada, established in 1875.

Until 2003, the Federal Court of Canada consisted of two divisions: an Appeal and a Trial Division. With amendments to the Federal Courts Act coming into force on July 2, 2003, these divisions became two separate courts: the Federal Court of Appeal and the Federal Court.

The Federal Court consists of a Chief Justice and thirty-two other judges. Currently (2011), there are 28 full-time judges (leaving five vacancies in the Court), along with three supernumerary judges, three deputy judges, and six prothonotaries.

The Federal Court cannot hear any case unless a federal statute confers jurisdiction on the Court to hear cases of that type.

Some examples of the sort of cases heard by the Federal Court are: judicial review of immigration decisions,intellectual property disputes etc.

Decisions of the Federal Court may be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal. Because it is a superior court of national jurisdiction, judgments are enforceable across Canada without the need for certification by the courts of a specific province.


The Federal Court of Appeal

The Federal Court of Appeal is a Canadian appellate court that hears cases concerning federal matters arising from certain federal Acts. The court was created on July 2, 2003 by the Courts Administration Service Act when it and the Federal Court were split from its predecessor, the Federal Court of Canada.