In previous editions of this column, I described how Canada’s Courts are structured in a hierarchy and how the Supreme Court of Canada is at the top of the hierarchy. Underneath the Supreme Court, there is a Federal Court system and 13 other systems, one within each Canadian Province and Territory. Remember that the Territorial and Provincial Court systems are not a step below the Federal Court system in this hierarchy; both systems sit at the same level, but have jurisdiction over different areas of the law.
I also addressed the Federal Court system and Alberta Provincial Court, which is one of the Courts that comprise Alberta’s Court system. In this article, I will write about Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench (Queen’s Bench), and the Alberta Court of Appeal.
Queen’s Bench is referred to as the Superior Court and can hear appeals from decisions made in Provincial Court. The Federal Government appoints Queen’s Bench Judges, whereas Provincial Court Judges are appointed by the Provincial Government. It is interesting to note that whenever a male monarch reigns on the English throne this Court is referred to as King’s Bench.
Queen’s Bench hears a wide variety of matters. This includes civil matters that involve claims for more than $25,000.00. When charged with an indictable offence, an accused often has a right to choose whether they want to be tried in Provincial Court or Queen’s Bench. However, Queen’s Bench has exclusive jurisdiction over very serious criminal matters, such as murder, treason and piracy. Queen’s Bench is also Alberta’s Surrogate Court, which means it has jurisdiction over the administration of estates. This includes probate (probate is when a Court verifies whether a particular Will is, in fact, the last testament of a deceased). In regards to family law, the most important thing to note is that Queen’s Bench has exclusive jurisdiction over divorce, and matters related to divorce. Finally, Queen’s Bench Judges have broad powers to hear appeals from administrative tribunals, like the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (formerly known as the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board) and the Alberta Labour Relations Board.
Judge’s Chambers – Historically, Chambers was held in a Queen’s Bench Judge’s Chambers, in other words, their office. Today, Chambers is held in an actual Courtroom in a sitting called Chambers. Chambers deals with matters of procedure and matters that cannot wait and need to be addressed on a temporary basis before a Trial can be held and concluded. A procedural matter would include things like asking the Court to move the matter to a later date; this is called getting an adjournment. An injunction is one example of a matter that cannot wait until after a Trial concludes. Injunctions prevent people from taking certain actions pending Trial, like disposing of specified assets (i.e. a house). Such Orders are important because if a Court battle were about a house that is sold (and the proceeds are spent) while waiting for a Trial to conclude, it would defeat the purpose of the Trial.
Master’s Chambers – The role of a Master is similar to the role of a Queen’s Bench Judge sitting in Chambers, although Masters derive their power from Statutes and not the Constitution, and the Provincial, rather than the Federal, Government appoints them. They, too, deal with urgent and procedural matters, but their decisions are subject to certain restrictions. For example, they cannot hear live testimony given by witnesses, but rather they can only determine matters upon information in sworn affidavits (written statements). Other examples include an inability to deal with criminal matters or matters of civil contempt.
Essentially, the role of a Master is to apply the law. They have no equitable jurisdiction similar to that of a Queen’s Bench Judge. Equitable jurisdiction is something that allows Judges to take into account the overall fairness of a situation.
The primary role of this Court is to hear appeals from both Provincial Court and the Court of Queen’s Bench. In addition, the Cabinet of the Government of Alberta can ask this Court to make certain legal determinations about constitutional issues or things like the tax collection agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of Alberta. Once a decision is made in this Court, the only place it can be appealed is to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Cabinet of the Government of Canada has a similar power to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to make certain legal determinations. This is called a reference. For example, when the Government of Canada asked the Supreme Court to determine the conditions under which Quebec could legally secede from Canada, pursuant to Canada’s Constitution and International Law, this is known as the Secession Reference.
For many people, navigating Canada’s judicial system can seem like a daunting task. In some circumstances, it is possible to accomplish one’s goals by wading into the system without the assistance of legal counsel. However, hiring counsel can help make one’s experience shorter-lived and often conclude with a more favourable result.