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Canada's Judicial System

The highest court in the land is the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court has the official power to decide whether legislation and government actions respect Canadians’ fundamental rights. Those rights are listed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of the Canadian Constitution.

The highest court in the land is the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court has the official power to decide whether legislation and government actions respect Canadians’ fundamental rights. Those rights are listed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of the Canadian Constitution.

The Supreme Court can also settle disputes over government powers and the division of federal, municipal and municipal powers, which are also listed in the Constitution.

But perhaps the largest role of the Supreme Court involves hearing appeals – deciding if the law was properly interpreted and applied in court decisions (rulings) made in lower courts across Canada.

In those cases, the Supreme Court’s nine judges examine and rule on cases that have already gone through other courts - provincial or territorial - but have been appealed (challenged) through higher courts known as a court of appeal. The Supreme Court is a case’s final stop.

Is the Supreme Court more powerful than the Prime Minister, the House of Commons or the Senate? Sometimes it is, such as when interpreting the Constitution. More than once in Canada’s history, a law passed by Canada’s elected government has been overturned by the Supreme Court. A recent example was the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling overturning the ban on doctor-assisted suicide.

The Supreme Court is also asked, on occasion, to provide opinions on constitutional questions. These are known as “reference cases”, and the Court’s answers are legally binding.