Full Title Name:  Canada's Legal System in a Nutshell

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Jacquelyn A. Shaw Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2009 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center

This document gives a brief summary of the structure of the Canadian legal system.


In most of Canada’s provinces and territories, the legal system is based on the old judge-made law of England, where a judge’s ruling was adapted flexibly to fit new fact situations, without the need for an overarching legal code based on certain principles. A notable Canadian exception   is the province of Quebec, where the legal system was based originally on the French civil code. Some argue that a legal code may make outcomes more logical and consistent, while others note that a legal code may also be less flexible when new fact situations arise, due to social or scientific change.

Canada has three main levels of courts in which cases may be heard in the ten provinces and three northern territories. In each province or territory, trial-level provincial courts provide a case with its first hearing. In neighbouring provinces, the results of a hearing have only persuasive, rather than binding value as a precedent to be followed. Future cases with similar fact situations in the same province follow the same precedent (by the doctrine of ‘ stare decisis’ ) unless they are distinguished in some way factually, or unless overruled by a higher court such as the Supreme Court of Canada.

A trial judge’s decision may be appealed (on issues of law) to a provincial Court of Appeal, where again, the result has only persuasive rather than binding value for other provinces. Finally, if appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, this decision is final and binding on all Canada`s provinces; it cannot be appealed further within Canada’s legal system. Among Canadian dog-bite cases, relatively few cases have reached the Court of Appeal and none to date have reached the Supreme Court of Canada.

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