Supreme Court of Canada

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Supreme Court building in Ottawa
Interior view of the Supreme Court of Canada
The sign in front of the Supreme Court

Coordinates: 45 ° 25 '19.4 "  N , 75 ° 42' 19.8"  W The Supreme Court of Canada ( . English Supreme Court of Canada , fr. Cour suprême du Canada ) is the highest judicial organ of the state of Canada . It is at the head of the Canadian legal system . The court sits in the capital, Ottawa, and annually evaluates no more than one hundred court cases passed byfederal, territorial and provincial courts of appeal . Traditionally, the decisions are binding on all subordinate courts. The nine-member Supreme Court consists of eight simple judges ( puisne justice, juge puîné ) and the chairman ( Chief Justice of Canada, Juge en chef du Canada ).


After the founding of the Dominion Canada in 1867, the idea of ​​creating a supreme appellate court for the new country arose. Prominent politicians such as Prime Ministers John Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie supported this project. However, in Parliament the loyalty to the British tradition was still very strong and so corresponding bills in 1869 and 1870 were rejected. The law could only be passed on April 8, 1875. The Supreme Court began operating on November 18, 1875. At the beginning there were six judges. Since this often led to undecided judgments, the number was increased to seven in 1927.

Before 1949, however, the Supreme Court was not the highest authority. Judgments could be referred to the Justice Committee of the Privy Council in London . In some cases the Supreme Court could also be skipped, so that its influence was rather modest. While the Supreme Court tended to render its judgments in the spirit of strengthening the state, the judgments of the Privy Council tended to be in the spirit of provincial rights. This growing contradiction between centralism and federalism led in the 1930s to the demand to create a legal system independent of Great Britain .

From 1933 the Supreme Court was the final instance in criminal matters, and from 1949 also in all other cases. This year the number of judges was increased to nine. The 1982 constitutional act , which severed the last constitutional ties with Great Britain, included the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms . This declaration of fundamental rights resulted in a greater influence of the court on Canadian society as it greatly expanded the scope of the judicial review right .

Role and approach

The structure of the Canadian court system is pyramidal. Various courts in the provinces and territories form a broad base, the judges being appointed by the provincial and territorial governments. At the next level are the supreme courts of the provinces and territories, whose judges are appointed by the federal government. Judgments from these courts can be referred to the courts of appeal in the provinces and territories. There are also various appellate courts at federal level, but their area of ​​jurisdiction is limited.

At the top of this pyramid is the Supreme Court of Canada; like the United States Supreme Court and unlike the Federal Constitutional Court itself, it is part of the appeal. It assesses cases passed on by the highest appellate bodies at the provincial, territorial and federal levels. Under certain circumstances (for example, in the case of publication bans and other requirements that cannot be challenged) the cases go directly to the Supreme Court. Most of the time, a panel of three chief judges decides whether to deal with a case, and according to customary law they do not give any reason for acceptance or rejection. The Supreme Court must also give its opinion on specific legal questions raised by the Cabinet (so-called reference questions). Ordinary cases may give rise to new constitutional questions. The Supreme Court is then required to notify the federal and provincial governments so that they may intervene and state their point of view.

The Supreme Court meets for 18 weeks a year, from the first Monday in October to usually the end of June. Hearings are only held in Ottawa, but trial participants who live in remote areas can make oral statements via a video conferencing system. The court hearings are open to the public, and most are recorded in both official languages ​​for future broadcast. When the court meets, it meets Monday through Friday and handles two cases a day. Appeal proceedings require at least five judges to be present, but usually all nine.

The Chief Justice , or in his absence the senior judge of the other judges, presides over the sessions and sits in the center chair, with the others sitting to the right and left of it in the order of their appointment. The judges usually appear at the meetings in black silk robes. However, they wear scarlet ceremonial robes with white mink fur on special occasions and in the Senate Chamber at the opening of each new parliamentary session .

The court's decision is sometimes communicated orally at the end of the hearing. Most of the time, however, the decision is postponed to give the judges time to give their written reasons. The court's decisions do not have to be unanimous, but the losing judges have the right to justify their decision in writing if they so wish.

The Supreme Court has the final judicial review right over the constitutional validity of federal and provincial laws. If a law has been declared inconsistent with the constitution, the parliament concerned must either accept the decision, amend the law in accordance with the constitution, or successfully implement an amendment to the constitution. If a law does not comply with an article in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms , the parliament concerned can use the provisional clause to suspend the corresponding article for five years, which is extremely rare. In some cases, the court can suspend the entry into force of its judgment so that the legislature has sufficient time to amend a law in accordance with the judgment.

Since 1967 the court has employed assistants, usually chosen from among the best students in Canadian law schools. They conduct legal research, help formulate the judgments or prepare speeches and articles. Each of the ordinary judges has one assistant available, the Chief Justice three (before 1982 two).


View of the courthouse from the Ottawa River

The Supreme Court meets in Ottawa . The courthouse is on a hill on the banks of the Ottawa River near Parliament and is surrounded by a park. It contains three courtrooms, the two smaller ones in the side wings being used by the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal.

Construction began in 1939 and the foundation stone was laid by Elizabeth , the wife of King George VI. The building was designed in the Art Deco style by the architect Ernest Cormier . In January 1946 it was finally ready for occupancy.

Until 1889 the Supreme Court met in the Parliament building, in the area of ​​the Railway Commission. From 1889 he had his own building, the neo-Gothic Old Supreme Court on Bank Street , which was vacant after the move and was demolished in 1955.


Justices to the Supreme Court of Canada are appointed de jure by the Governor General based on the recommendation and consent of the Privy Council . According to tradition and customary law, only the cabinet instructs the governor general, not the entire privy council (technically, the cabinet is just the standing committee within the larger privy council). Usually only the prime minister brings the recommendation to the representative of the crown in an interview. The provinces and parliament are not involved in the decision-making process. In fact , the appointment is a matter for the Prime Minister.

The Supreme Court Act limits appointment to individuals who have served as judges in a higher court or have been members of the bar for at least ten years . At least three of the chief judges must, by law, be members of the Québec Bar Association or have pronounced justice in a higher court in that province. This is justified by the fact that in private law in Québec, unlike in the rest of the country, it is not common law that applies, but civil law with continental European characteristics. Under common law, the remaining six judge posts are divided among the provinces as follows: three from Ontario , two from western Canada, and one from the Atlantic provinces .

A Supreme Court judge, like all other federal judges, must resign at the age of 75; there is no lifetime appointment.


Surname province Appointed by
( Governor General )
Nominated by
( Prime Minister )
Taking office Mandatory
Richard Wagner ( chairman ) Quebec David Johnston Stephen Harper 5th October 2012 April 2, 2032
Rosalie Abella Ontario Adrienne Clarkson Paul Martin 4th October 2004 July 1, 2021
Michael Moldaver Ontario David Johnston Stephen Harper October 21, 2011 December 23, 2022
Andromache Karakatsanis Ontario David Johnston Stephen Harper October 21, 2011 October 3, 2030
Suzanne Côté Quebec Stephen Harper 1st December 2014 September 21, 2033
Russell Brown Alberta Stephen Harper August 31, 2015 September 15, 2040
Malcolm Rowe Newfoundland and Labrador Justin Trudeau October 28, 2016 2028
Sheilah Martin Alberta Julie Payette Justin Trudeau 18th December 2017 May 31, 2031
Nicholas Kasirer Quebec Julie Payette Justin Trudeau 16th September 2019 February 20, 2035

See also

Web links

Commons : Supreme Court of Canada  - Collection of Pictures, Videos, and Audio Files