Courts & Our Legal System

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1 Courts & Our Legal System

2 2012 (Version 1.0) This booklet has been prepared, published and distributed by the Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan (PLEA). The purpose of PLEA and this booklet is to provide the public with an introduction to a particular area of law. The content of this publication is intended as general legal information only and should not form the basis of legal advice of any kind. Individuals seeking specific legal advice should consult a lawyer. PLEA is a non-profit, non-government organization funded by the Law Foundation of Saskatchewan and Justice Canada. PLEA also receives generous support from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice and Attorney General. PLEA is supported by the Law Society of Saskatchewan, Canadian Bar Association (Saskatchewan Branch), College of Law, Legal Aid Saskatchewan, Ministry of Education, Saskatoon Public Library and the public libraries and regional colleges throughout the province. Contents may not be commercially reproduced, but reproduction for educational purposes is encouraged provided that PLEA is properly credited and contents are not taken out of context. Cover image credit Getty Images 2012 Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan, Inc. ISBN #

3 Table of Contents Court System... 1 Provincial Court... 1 Court of Queen s Bench... 1 Court of Appeal... 1 Federal Courts... 2 Supreme Court of Canada... 2 At a Glance: Our Court System... 3 Types of Disputes... 4 Civil Law Cases... 4 Criminal Law Cases... 4 Dockets and Case Names... 5 Courts as Fact-Finders... 5 Evidence... 5 Burden of Proof... 6 Courts, Law, and Judgment... 7 Sources of Law... 7 Precedent and Interpreting the Law... 7 Judgment... 7

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5 Court System There are basically three levels of courts, similar to those described below, in every Canadian province: Provincial Court, Court of Queen s Bench, and the Court of Appeal. Appeals can be made from a lower court to a higher court. There are also some federal courts that deal with matters such as citizenship and income tax. Finally, there is the Supreme Court of Canada which is the highest court in the land. Provincial Court The jurisdiction of the Provincial Court is determined by The Provincial Court Act and includes small claims, youth court and first appearances on all criminal matters. In addition, larger centres have Traffic Safety Courts presided over by Justices of the Peace. Provincial Court Judges are appointed by the Province of Saskatchewan. In some judicial centres, child protection matters and certain other family matters may go to Provincial Court or to the Family Law Division of the Court of Queen s Bench. Some judicial centres also provide specialized services, such as drug treatment court and domestic violence court. Saskatchewan also has a Cree Court that travels to northern parts of the province, such as Pelican Narrows, Sandy Bay, Whitefish First Nation and Ahtahkakoop First Nation. Court officials such as the judge, clerks and courtworkers speak Cree and individuals may have access to Cree-speaking legal aid lawyers. The Cree Court sits and presides over matters within its jurisdiction just as any other Provincial Court. Court of Queen s Bench This court can hear both civil and criminal trials. It is also an appeal court for some criminal cases originally tried in Provincial Court and small claims cases. With some exceptions, family matters generally go to the Family Law Division of the Court of Queen s Bench. Jury trials may take place in the Court of Queen s Bench. Queen s Bench Judges are appointed by the Government of Canada. Court of Appeal This court hears appeals from the Court of Queen s Bench. It is also the appeal court for some of the criminal trials which take place in Provincial Court. Court of Appeal Judges are appointed by the Government of Canada. The reasons for an appeal from a lower court decision are limited to the judge making an error about the law. It is not enough that one or both parties disagree with the decision or that they disagree with the decision the judge made about who was telling the truth. An appeal judge can only overrule a lower court if an error in the application of the law was made. 1

6 Federal Courts The Federal Court of Canada deals with matters such as civil cases involving the federal government, as well as matters dealing with patent, copyright and maritime law. There are also some specialized federal courts, such as the Tax Court of Canada, that only deal with one area of the law. Appeals from any federal court are heard by the Federal Court of Appeal, as well as applications for review from some federal tribunals or boards such as the Canadian Human Rights Commission or the Immigration and Refugee Board. Supreme Court of Canada The Supreme Court of Canada consists of eight judges and a Chief Justice. It sits only in Ottawa. When a dispute involves Quebec civil law, at least two judges from Quebec must sit on the appeal. This is the highest court in Canada. The decisions are final and conclusive. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over civil and criminal matters throughout Canada. It also decides all matters referred to it by the federal government, such as constitutional questions. In order to be heard in the Supreme Court, it may be necessary to have a leave of appeal granted. Usually leave is granted when an important question of law is involved in civil cases and where a significant sum of money is involved. In criminal cases, the appeal usually involves a serious offence and an important application of the law. Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Supreme Court hears many constitutional cases. All other courts must follow the decisions of this court unless the Supreme Court of Canada itself overrules a previous decision it made. To Consider The nine judges of the Supreme Court come from various regions in Canada. At least three must come from Quebec, and by tradition three come from Ontario, two from Western Canada, and one from the Atlantic Provinces. Why is this regional balance important for Canada s justice system? Cree Court has many benefits. They include enabling the accused to communicate in a manner suited to their language and culture, encouraging community participation in the justice system, and incorporating traditional values into sentences. How does incorporating such values help build a safe and healthy society? Juries give citizens the opportunity to play a role in administering justice and the opportunity for those accused of a crime to be judged by a panel of their fellow citizens. Jury trials are not an option for every case. In the case of criminal trials, the option is reserved for more serious offences. Jury trials in civil cases are available when one party requests and pays for a jury. However, it is somewhat uncommon in Canada for criminal defendants or civil litigants to opt for trial by jury. What do you think would be the benefits and drawbacks to a trial by jury? 2

7 At a Glance: Our Court System Supreme Court of Canada Saskatchewan Court of Appeal Federal Court of Appeal Appeals on more serious criminal matters Saskatchewan Court of Queen s Bench civil and criminal matters some appeals from Provincial Court Family Law Division family law issues such as divorce, custody, access, property division, and support Federal Court of Canada Tax Court of Canada Provincial Court of Saskatchewan First appearance for all criminal matters 3

8 Types of Disputes Courts provide a means to settle legal disputes. The dispute can be between two individuals. This is known as a civil matter. The dispute can concern criminal activity and therefore concerns the public as a whole. This is known as a criminal matter. Civil Law Cases A civil dispute deals with the specific interests of individuals or entities (e.g. corporations). This type of dispute is often referred to as a private dispute. Civil law covers a range of issues such as negligence, wills and estates, debts, contracts, and family law matters such as divorce, child custody, family property division, and enforcement of support payments. In civil law cases, the party who starts the action seeking damages or some other remedy is usually called the plaintiff. The party against whom the remedy is sought is called the defendant. In family law matters, the person making an application to the court is called the petitioner. The person who must respond to the application is called the respondent. Criminal Law Cases Criminal law matters involve a public interest. Society as a whole says that certain conduct is not acceptable and imposes a penalty for individuals who engage in such behaviour. Criminal law is broad in scope (from theft to treason; murder to air piracy). In general, criminal offences are set out in the Criminal Code and other federal statutes such as the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and the Food and Drugs Act. Offences established by provincial statutes (e.g. The Alcohol and Gaming Regulation Act) or municipal bylaws (e.g. parking bylaws) are not, strictly speaking, criminal offences, though a penalty may be imposed for violating these laws. The individual charged with committing a criminal offence is known as the accused. In Canadian law, crimes are dealt with as wrongs against society as a whole, not as simply private matters between two people, even though individuals often suffer injury or damage. Because of this, criminal proceedings are conducted in the name of the Queen to represent the interest of the state. The lawyer representing the Queen called the Crown Counsel or Prosecutor is therefore not the victim s lawyer, but is acting on behalf of all members of the public. To Consider Many civil law cases are settled out-of-court before a trial takes place. This is accomplished either through mediation or a pre-trial conference with a judge. What are the advantages of settling an issue before it goes to trial? Generally, criminal trials take place in the court of the community where the crime was committed. What are the benefits and drawbacks to this? 4

9 Dockets and Case Names Dockets are formal records that note the proceedings and filings in a particular court case and may also refer to a court schedule. The case names can reveal a bit about the nature of the dispute. R. v. John Doe A criminal case is referenced as R versus the defendant. The R stands for Regina, the Latin term for Queen. This symbolizes that it is the state or government that is bringing the charges against an individual defendant on behalf of the people. John Doe v. R. If the case is an appeal of a criminal matter, it is John Doe challenging the state, so R appears second. R. v. J. D. Generally, the Youth Criminal Justice Act does not allow for the public release of the names of people under 18 involved in criminal acts. Their initials are used to protect their identity. John Doe v. Jane Roe If only names of individuals or entities appear, the court case is a civil matter. In this case, the plaintiff s name appears first followed by the respondent's name. Courts as Fact-Finders In our legal system, courts (and in some situations juries) are responsible for deciding what happened in the case at hand. This is true whether someone is charged with a crime or is being sued for damages. To understand what happened, evidence must be presented to the court. Evidence In a civil case the plaintiff presents the evidence to support their case. The defendant then has a chance to present evidence that shows the plaintiff s claim is unfounded. In criminal cases the Prosecutor or the Crown Counsel presents the case against the accused. The accused then has the chance to show that the prosecution did not prove their case. There are rules concerning what evidence is acceptable in court and only evidence that follows these rules may be presented. In general the evidence has to be relevant to the case before the court will hear it. Types of evidence which are considered unreliable will not generally be 5

10 allowed. For example, hearsay evidence is not generally allowed. Hearsay evidence is secondhand evidence. For example if a person is testifying about what someone else said this may be considered hearsay. Burden of Proof After hearing the evidence the court makes findings about the facts of the case. It is common for a court to hear conflicting versions of what happened. There are rules that form the basis for a court determining the facts of the case. These are different for civil and criminal cases. In civil cases the plaintiff must prove their case on what is called a balance of probabilities. This means that they must satisfy the court that it is more likely than not that their version of what happened is true. A person charged with a criminal offence is presumed innocent until they plead guilty or are proven guilty in court. The Crown Prosecutor must prove that the accused person is guilty. The accused person does not have to establish or show that they are innocent. In order to convict an accused person the Crown Prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused person committed the criminal offence they are charged with. The court cannot find the person guilty if they have a reasonable doubt about the accused person s guilt. They have a reasonable doubt if, after considering all the evidence, they are unsure whether the accused person committed the offence. To convict, the court must believe that the only sensible explanation, considering all the evidence, is that the accused person committed the crime. To Consider Hearsay, or second-hand information such as what somebody overheard somebody else say, is generally not allowed as evidence. Why is it important that only first-hand information be considered as evidence? In a criminal case, the Crown must establish that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case, the plaintiff only needs to prove their case through the balance of probabilities, meaning it is more likely than not that their version of what happened is true. Why do you think the standard of proof required for rendering a verdict is much higher in a criminal case than in a civil case? 6

11 Courts, Law, and Judgment To settle disputes the courts must apply the law to the facts of the case. In doing so, courts will consider statutes, common law and precedent. Sources of Law Laws can originate from different sources. While statutes (federal, provincial or municipal) are written laws created by a legislative body, some law is based on accepted civil duties, such as not harming another person or their property. When there are no statutes setting out such an area of the law it is largely defined by a collection of decisions made by judges. This body of law is called the common law. Precedent and Interpreting the Law Laws, whether in a statute or part of the common law, are subject to interpretation. If the law has been interpreted in one way by a court in a previous case this can give guidance to a court hearing another case. In some cases courts are bound by how other courts have interpreted a law. In our judicial system lower courts generally must follow higher court decisions. For example suppose a city wished to have a park where its citizens could spend time enjoying nature in a peaceful, safe place. To help do this the city council passed a law stating No team sports may be played in the park. While the law may seem clear enough at first, questions may arise in certain situations. Would the law apply to four people throwing a Frisbee, a relay team practicing for a track meet, or a group of children playing tag? It might not be easy to decide. If there was an earlier case in which a judge had ruled that young children s informal games are not team sports, that decision would be a precedent. If the decision was of a higher court the court would be bound by the precedent. Otherwise the decision would simply offer guidance. Judgment The final outcome of a case is the judgment. Once a court has determined the facts and how the law applies to the facts, the court then determines what the outcome of the case will be. If it is a civil case there may be an award of damages (money). If it is a criminal case there will be a sentence if the accused is convicted. Courts also make other decisions. For example, they can decide on the custody of children when parents split up. In Canada, many of our legal decisions are made using the precedent system where similar legal problems are decided using similar principles. As a result, lawyers can advise their clients not only about what the law says but also, in many cases, what a judge is likely to decide if a similar issue or problem has come up before. For example, if a separating or divorcing spouse was being sued for support payments by their spouse, the judge would have to decide whether one spouse should make support payments to the other. The judge may look at other cases with similar facts. As much as possible, the judge would apply the principles in those other cases to the facts before the court, to decide whether 7

12 one spouse should pay support to the other, in what amount and for how long. Factors such as how long the spouses lived together, what role each spouse had in running the household, or the ability of the spouses to support themselves within a reasonable period of time, would influence the judge s decision. Previous decisions can set a precedent for how important these facts are in making a decision. However, this method is not always predictable, especially in an area like family law. Take the example of a court deciding what parenting arrangements are appropriate in a given situation. The general guideline for deciding this question is what is in the best interests of the child. The things that determine what is in the best interests of the child will vary from case to case, depending upon individual circumstances. Judges have a great deal of discretion to decide what is in the child s best interests. As a result, predicting the outcome is more difficult. To Consider Judges must hold themselves to high standards: they must both be and appear to be fair and impartial. Because of this, judges are prohibited from overseeing cases where they may have a conflict-of-interest. For example, if the judge has a relationship with one of the litigants, it could be a conflict of interest. As well, judges cannot belong to or donate to a political party, they must refrain from signing petitions, and they must exercise caution when speaking in public about political, social, or legal issues. Why is it vital to the justice system that judges be impartial? Appeals are heard by higher courts, but only if the higher court determines that an error in law had been made at the lower level. Is there any further recourse for a person who is unhappy with a finding of the Supreme Court? 8

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