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The court system in Canada

The judicial system is made up of various levels of courts that fall under federal or provincial/territorial control. It can get pretty complicated, so here's a breakdown to help you navigate Canada's multi-layered judiciary.

Outline of the court system. Image courtesy of justice.gc.caHere are the different types of courts:

  • Provincial/territorial courts: these courts exist in every province or territory, except Nunavut, and deal with most criminal offences, family law matters (except divorce), young persons 17 and under in conflict with the law, traffic violations, regulatory offences, and claims involving money.


  • Provincial/territorial superior courts: Each province and territory, including Nunavut, has superior courts. These courts have different names and most provinces have their own Supreme Court that is separate from the Supreme Court of Canada. Some, like Alberta, even have a division called the Court of Queen’s Bench. These courts hear serious criminal and civil cases. They also are specialized to deal with certain family law matter such as divorce and property claims. The judges are appointed and paid for by the federal government and superior courts serve as the first level in the appeals process.


  • Provincial/territorial courts of appeal: These appellate courts hear appeals from decisions rendered in the provincial/territorial regular and superior courts. They usually sit as a panel of three judges, which are all federally appointed.


  • Federal courts: These courts, which consist of the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal, only deal with matters related to federal laws. Decisions by the Federal Court that get appealed are heard by the Federal Court of Appeal. These courts mostly try cases stemming from inter-provincial and federal-provincial disputes, intellectual property proceedings, citizenship appeals, trade and competition cases, and cases involving Crown corporations or government departments. The Tax Court of Canada and Military courts are specialized arms of the Federal Court.


  • Supreme Court of Canada: This is the top court in Canada and the final court of appeal and has the final — and binding — interpretation of Canadian laws. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over disputes in all areas of the law, including constitutional law, administrative law, criminal law and civil law, but only hears the most important cases. While the panel of nine judges — including a Chief Justices and eight fellow judges — are appointed by the Prime Minister, they are independent and often make decisions counter to the government’s will. Under the Supreme Court Act, three of the nine judges must come from Quebec. The SCC also decides on key questions regarding the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court also serves an advisory role to the government, which can ask for its opinion on important legal matters.

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.

See: From arrest to trial: An overview

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.

See: The criminal trial process

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