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There are federal and provincial laws that describe the rights and responsibilities of Canadian residents.
Canadians vote for people to represent them in the federal, provincial, and local governments. Usually, elections are held about every four years.
The people who get the most votes become elected representatives. It is their job to make new laws, based on the policy decisions of the elected government.
Laws in Canada can change. Individuals can work together to try to influence elected representatives. They try to persuade the government to change the law through peaceful means.
Canadians write letters, organize political protests, work with political parties or join interest groups with people who have the same ideas as they do. Changing the law this way takes a lot of time and work, but most Canadians believe that slow, peaceful change is best.
Canadians have legal responsibilities as well as rights. Everyone in Canada must follow the law. You must obey the law, even if you don’t know the law or don’t agree with the law. People in the government, the police, and the army must obey the law, too.
If you don’t obey the law, you may end up in court. If you break a criminal law, the police may arrest you and you could go to jail if you are found guilty. If you have a civil law or family law dispute, you may have to go to court to have a judge decide the case. See Types of Law below, for more information.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (also called “The Charter”) guarantees the rights and freedoms of all Canadians and residents of Canada. The Charter is part of the Canadian Constitution.
Some of Canada’s important legal rights are:
All Canadians have some important freedoms. You can:
All people in Canada are equal in law. Discrimination is against the law. To discriminate against someone means to treat him or her differently from other people in a way that is unfair.
The law says that no one can discriminate against you because of your:
To read all of the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Charter, visit the Department of Justice website. See the section on Human Rights to learn more about discrimination and your rights, as well as the DialALaw video: Human Rights & Discrimination Protection
The Charter is very important in criminal law. It affects all areas of criminal law, like how the police investigate a crime, making sure the trial is fair, and giving reasonable sentences. To learn more, see Crime.
There are different kinds of law in Canada and these laws are made by different governments. Criminal law deals with crime, like robbing a bank. The Criminal Code of Canada determines what is a crime. A person may go to jail if he or she is convicted of committing a crime.
Civil law deals with agreements between people and organizations. It includes things like: contracts, buying property, personal injury, and so on. If people cannot solve civil law problems on their own, they may need to file a lawsuit to have the case decided by a judge.
The person who starts the legal action is called “the claimant”. The person who the plaintiff is suing is called “the defendant”. In a civil trial, the plaintiff must prove his or her case “on a balance of probabilities”. This means that the plaintiff has to convince the judge that his or her story is “more likely to be true” than the defendant’s. Family law cases, like divorce, are another kind of civil law. You can learn about family law cases at Family Law Basics.
A third type of law is administrative law. Different government agencies and tribunals administer rules that relate to everyday things like employment, housing, health and industry. This is called administrative law. The BC Residential Tenancy Branch and the BC Employment Standards Branch are examples of government agencies that make policies and regulate the application of laws relating to rental disputes and employment issues. They deal with administrative law.
There are different levels and types of courts in Canada. Each court has a different “jurisdiction”, which means that they can decide different types of cases. Tribunals play an important role in dispute resolution and make decisions relating to administrative law issues, but they are not part of the court system.
This chart shows how our courts in British Columbia are organized, from the “first level” Provincial Court to the “highest court,” the Court of Appeal.
The Provincial Court of British Columbia
The Provincial Court of BC is the first level of court. The Provincial Court hears most criminal cases and cases involving children under 18 years of age (called Young Offenders) charged with committing a crime.
The Provincial Court also hears:
Learn more at ProvincialCourt.bc.ca.
The Supreme Court of British Columbia
The BC Supreme Court hears these kinds of cases
Learn more at SupremeCourtBC.ca.
The Court of Appeal for British Columbia
If a party does not agree with the decision from their trial in the BC Supreme Court, they can “appeal” their case to the BC Court of Appeal. An appeal means that judges from another court will review their case to see if the judge made the right decision. Usually, three judges from the Court of Appeal will hear the appeal. Learn more at CourtofAppealBC.ca.
Supreme Court of Canada
The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa is the highest level court in Canada. It hears appeals from all other appeal courts in Canada. There is no appeal from a decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Tribunals are like court – see Administrative Law described above. A regulator from a government agency hearing evidence and decides the case. An example of a tribunal is the Residential Tenancy Branch, which solves disputes between landlord and tenants. Tribunals are an important system for resolving disputes.
Tribunals hear disputes about special government rules and regulations. An adjudicator, not a judge, hears the case. The process is less formal than a court hearing. Adjudicators have very specialized knowledge about one area of law, like employment insurance, disability benefits, or refugee claims. To learn more about administrative tribunals, go to AdminLawBC.ca.
IMPORTANT: This page provides legal information, not legal advice. If you need legal advice consult a lawyer.
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