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Guide to Canada's System of Justice


The legal system in Canada is based on various European systems that were brought by colonists and explorers. The settlers in Canada each had their own set of rules but over time, the immigrants took over, and their law prevailed. In 1759, the legal system became almost completely based on the British statutory and common law. Quebec was the exception because it followed the French Code Napoleon. The common is based on the judge’s decision in the royal courts which is based on a system of precedents or previous decisions.

The civil law is based on the Roman system of law. Once Emperor Justinian streamlined all the Roman laws into one common set of civil laws, the system has been followed in Canada. The Quebec civil code as it is known was enacted in 1866, and revised recently.

Canadian Constitution

The Canadian Constitution was passed in 1867 with the constitution act, and it was initially known as the British North America Act. This was modified in the Constitution Act of 1982, and renamed as the Canada Act. It is highest level of law in Canada, and any other rule passed that is inconsistent with the constitution is not valid.

The amendment act of 1982 is important as it brought to an end the legislative authority the British had over Canada, granting the nation complete freedom. Earlier the constitution could be changed only by the British but after 1982, the federal and provincial governments could change it. It also consists of a Charter of Rights which gives the Constitution individual rights and freedom plus thirty other acts.

Judicial Structure

The judicial structure in Canada comprises of four levels of courts. The Supreme Court is the highest level of justice, and it is the centre of the legal system in Canada. It deals with appeals not only from the federal courts but also provincial courts. Unlike the United States, the Supreme Court in Canada acts as a national court, and not just a federal court.

The second level consists of the Federal court of appeal, court martial court of appeal, and the various provincial courts of appeal. The next level in this system is made up of the provincial/territorial superior courts, the federal courts, and the tax courts of Canada. The bottom rung comprises of military courts, provincial courts, provincial administrative courts, and federal administrative tribunals.

Role of the Public

The law is not restricted to lawyers, judges, and other people who are related to the courts. It is the duty of individuals who have some knowledge pertaining to a case that could help resolve the case. They are obliged to present the evidence in court. If they do not go willingly, they can be subpoenaed. A jury comprises of a group of citizens who listen to the evidence and decide if the person is guilty or not.

Every citizen has a role to play in upholding the legal system of the country, be it testifying in court, serving jury duty or just being aware of the law and following it. Ignorance of the law cannot be used as defence or an excuse to commit a crime.

While Canadian law is somewhat different from American law, it can be seen that there are some similarities as well. The history of Canadian law sheds light on the growth and maturity of the country.

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