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Legal Landscape

Federal Framework

The system of government in Canada was adopted and adapted from that of the United Kingdom; Canada being a federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. The federal legislative branch of Canada is known as its parliament and consists of the Head of State (also known as the Crown), the House of Commons and the Senate. The seat of Canada’s parliament is in Ottawa, Ontario.

As a member of the British Commonwealth, Canada’s Head of State is Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, as represented by the governor general. The House of Commons consists of 338 democratically elected members and is also known as the lower house of parliament. The Senate, also known as the upper house of parliament, consists of 105 members who are appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister of Canada. The prime minister is typically the leader of the party with the most members in the House of Commons and serves as Canada’s head of government.

The House of Commons is the dominant branch of parliament, with the Senate and the Crown rarely opposing its will, in accordance with constitutional convention. The Constitution of Canada is made up of written enactments (consisting of the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Constitution Act, 1982) and unwritten customs, judicial decisions, and traditions (forming constitutional convention).

Pursuant to the Constitution, legislative powers and responsibilities are divided and delineated between federal and provincial governments. Examples of legislative powers falling exclusively within the federal government’s purview include those dealing with trade and commerce, national defence, foreign affairs, patents, trademarks and copyright, the census and statistics, banking and interest, federal taxation, the post office, aviation, shipping, railways, fisheries, telephone and telecommunications, currency, pipelines, weights and measures, marriage and divorce, criminal law, penitentiaries, bankruptcy and insolvency, and Aboriginal lands and rights.

Federally, Canada follows both the English common law system and the French civil law system (the latter being the primary system followed in the Province of Quebec).

Provincial Framework

The Constitution establishes a Legislature for Ontario consisting of the Lieutenant Governor and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, which currently consists of 107 democratically elected members. The Premier of Ontario is head of the provincial government and is typically leader of the party with the most members in the Legislature.

As a province of Canada, the written Constitution grants to Ontario exclusive jurisdiction for legislating matters of a local or private nature within the province, such as those dealing with education, direct taxes, hospitals, local works, the solemnization of marriage, the administration of justice, municipal institutions and property and civil rights.

Certain responsibilities overlap, and Ontario shares powers with the federal government in areas such as the establishment of business organizations, agriculture, prisons and justice, fishing, and public works.

Ontario follows the English common law system.

Courts

The Courts of Ontario consist of:

  • The Superior Court of Justice (responsible for such matters as serious criminal offences, divorces and family law matters, civil cases including commercial disputes; personal injury, bankruptcy and insolvency cases, litigation involving wills and estates, and challenges to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).
  • The Ontario Court of Justice (responsible for such matters as criminal offences other than the most serious offences; family law matters like those dealing with child protection, custody, access support and adoption; pre-trial hearings, like those seeking bail or search warrants, for criminal matters that will go to the Superior Court; and violations of provincial laws).

In Ontario, the Divisional Court, Small Claims Court, and the Family Court are branches of the Superior Court of Justice.

  • The Divisional Court hears statutory appeals from administrative tribunals in the province, judicial reviews of government action in Ontario and has some jurisdiction regarding civil and family appeals.
  • The Small Claims Court handles civil monetary claims up to C$35,000, involving nearly half of all civil claims in the province.
  • The Family Court hears cases involving divorce, division of property, support, custody and access, child protection, and adoption.

Appeals from decisions of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice and Ontario Court of Justice are heard at the Court of Appeal for Ontario, whose jurisdiction includes the consideration of both civil and criminal appeals. The Supreme Court of Canada has jurisdiction to hear appeals from Ontario’s Court of Appeal.

As well, federally, claims against the Government of Canada, civil suits in federally-regulated areas and challenges to the decisions of federal tribunals are heard at the Federal Court; disputes over federal taxes are heard at the Tax Court of Canada; and appeals from decisions rendered by the Federal Court, the Tax Court of Canada and certain federal administrative tribunals are heard at the Federal Court of Appeal.

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