As Canada’s final court of appeal, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over disputes in every area of law.
A view of the Supreme Court of Canada from the Ottawa River
The Supreme Court makes significant contributions to Canada’s strong and secure democracy, founded on the rule of law. Created in 1875, the Court is open, impartial and independent. As the country’s final court of appeal, it has jurisdiction over disputes in every area of the law. It is the guardian of the Constitution and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Working together, the nine judges decide Canada’s most important and complex legal questions. They hear and decide cases in both French and English. The Court is also bijural, which means it applies the law according to common law and civil law legal traditions.
Cases most often come to the Supreme Court of Canada from provincial and territorial appeal courts. Appeals may also originate at the Federal Court of Appeal and the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada. Most cases are presented as requests for a hearing called an application for leave to appeal. Supreme Court judges will only hear cases they consider to be of national importance. There are exceptions in some criminal cases for automatic appeals where, for instance, a judge of an appeal court has dissented on a point of law. Supreme Court judges also answer reference questions that arise when a government asks the Court for an advisory legal opinion. Reference cases often ask if a proposed or existing legislation is constitutional, for example whether the federal government has the right to legislate certain activities. The Supreme Court has answered a wide variety of reference questions over the years, on topics such as same-sex marriage, Senate reform and medical assistance in dying.
In 2022, the Court heard many criminal law appeals, as well as cases concerning everything from taxation to child custody. There are no trials or juries at the Supreme Court. No one testifies or introduces new evidence. Judges consider written and oral arguments from lawyers for the main parties, and ask them questions. They may also hear from interveners who often represent members of the public with a special interest on a legal issue.
The Supreme Court of Canada is an active and valued member of several international judicial organizations, and it regularly participates in professional exchanges with top courts around the world.
Current bench of the Supreme Court of Canada
Back row: Justices Jamal, Martin, Kasirer and O’Bonsawin
Front row: Justices Brown and Karakatsanis, Chief Justice Wagner, Justices Côté and Rowe
Appointed as Chief Justice in 2017
Appointed from Quebec in 2012
Appointed from Ontario in 2011
Appointed from Quebec in 2014
Appointed from Alberta in 2015
Appointed from Newfoundland and Labrador in 2016
Appointed from Alberta in 2017
Appointed from Quebec in 2019
Appointed from Ontario in 2021
Appointed from Ontario in 2022
Justice O’Bonsawin takes her oath of office at her September swearing-in ceremony
With an eagle feather in her hand, Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin took her oath during her swearing-in ceremony on September 1st before her new colleagues, family and friends. That same day, Justice Michael Moldaver retired, just a few months shy of his 75th birthday. He had served as a judge for 32 years, with the last 11 at the Supreme Court. At Justice Moldaver’s final appeal hearing, Chief Justice Wagner remarked that, “Canadians have benefited from his humanity and deep commitment to fair and just results.”
At the end of November, during the traditional welcome ceremony for Justice O’Bonsawin, several speakers expressed their appreciation for her legal expertise and scholarship, as well as her collegiality and commitment to access to justice. Chief Justice Wagner highlighted how, “Justice O’Bonsawin’s appointment helps ensure that our country’s democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court, are even more reflective of Canadian society."
Chief Justice Wagner thanked Justice Moldaver at his last hearing
The Supreme Court’s fall session got off to an early start in September when the judges traveled to the capital of Quebec to hear two important cases and meet with people across the region.
Hundreds of people attended two hearings at the bright and airy Quebec City courthouse. Both appeals came from the Quebec Court of Appeal. In His Majesty the King v. Pascal Breault, Supreme Court judges considered how long police should be allowed to hold someone suspected of impaired driving, while they wait for the delivery of a breathalyzer. The next day, the Court heard Janick Murray-Hall v. Attorney General of Quebec. The Court was asked to decide whether the provincial ban on homegrown cannabis plants is constitutional.
During the week, every judge traveled to a different local high school to speak to teenagers and answer their questions. Students at all nine schools asked judges about their backgrounds, life experiences, education and how they decide challenging legal questions. Members of the Court also met with law students at Université Laval, along with members of Quebec’s legal and judicial communities. These opportunities help Canadians learn about the Court, its activities and its role in Canada’s democracy.
Members of the Court also hosted a free public event at the city’s engaging Musée de la civilisation. More than 200 people showed up, eager to learn more about what the Court does and how it operates. The judges answered questions from members of the public and moderator Isabelle Richer on topics such as judicial appointments, policing, Indigenous rights and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
One woman who attended with her two young children said she appreciated being able to hear directly from the judges, especially when it can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction online.
This was the second time the judges heard cases outside Ottawa, with the first trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2019. These initiatives are inspired by the principle of access to justice. As Chief Justice Wagner told the audience, “It is important that people understand how and why the Court makes its decisions. After all, it’s hard for anyone to trust something they don’t understand.”
Supreme Court staff who supported the hearings and activities in Quebec City
Chief Justice Wagner arriving at Collège François-de-Laval
Members of the public asked judges questions
Members of the Court on the steps of Quebec City Hall
Court employees testing equipment before the hearings
Justices Côté and Rowe
Justice Rowe participated in a panel discussion with Marie-Claire Belleau at Université Laval
Justices Martin and Kasirer find their seats in the Quebec City courtroom
The judges answered questions at the Musée de la civilisation
Chief Justice Wagner in discussion with Quebec Chief Justice Manon Savard
Registry Case Manager Mark Waito advises the public to silence their phones before a hearing
First hearing in Quebec City
Chief Justice Wagner answering questions from the public
Justice Jamal participated in a panel discussion with Salomé Paradis at Université Laval
Chief Justice Wagner with Huron-Wendat Grand Chief Rémy Vincent
The Supreme Court rules that an Alberta First Nation could qualify to have its legal fees paid in advance by the government despite having funds of its own.
The Supreme Court restores an Alberta man’s acquittal for attacking a woman while in a state of automatism.
The Supreme Court finds unconstitutional the section of the Criminal Code that permits consecutive parole ineligibility periods of 25 years in cases involving multiple first degree murders.
The Supreme Court rules a grandmother should have custody over a child despite the father’s closer biological tie.
The Supreme Court rules that the Council of Canadians with Disabilities can challenge British Columbia’s mental health laws.
The Supreme Court finds constitutional a new procedure in the Criminal Code for deciding if a complainant’s private documents can be used by an accused in a sexual offence trial.
The Supreme Court rules the Copyright Act only requires users to pay one royalty fee to stream works online.
The Supreme Court rules that when someone is required by their partner to wear a condom during sex but they do not, they could be guilty of sexual assault.
The Supreme Court finds the mandatory and lifetime registration on the sex offender registry unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court rules that banning conditional sentences for certain offences is constitutional.
The Supreme Court rules that an online police investigation targeting people searching for sex with children was not entrapment.
The Supreme Court rules that a court in the United Arab Emirates can decide the custody of two resident children who travelled to Ontario with their Canadian mother.
|1||R. v. Ali||Alta.||Jan. 14|
|2||R. v. Boulanger||Que.||Feb. 9
|3||R. v. Ste-Marie||Que.||Feb. 10
|4||R. v. A.E.†
(39699 / 39703)
|5||R. v. Brunelle||Que.||Mar. 15
|6||Anderson v. Alberta*||Alta.||Mar. 18
||R. v. White||N.L.||Mar. 18
|8||R. v. Pope||N.L.||Mar. 21
|9||R. v. Samaniego||Ont.||Mar. 25
|10||R. v. Vallières||Que.||Mar. 31
|11||R. v. Stairs||Ont.||Apr. 8|
|12||R. v. Tim||Alta.||Apr. 14
|13||R. v. Gerrard
|14||R. v. Alas||Ont.||Apr. 21
|15||R. v. J.D.
Decision rendered from the bench
|Que.||Nov. 10, 2021
(written reasons Apr. 22, 2022)
|16||R. v. Dussault||Que.||Apr. 29
||R. v. J.F.||Que.||May 6
|18||R. v. Brown*||Alta.||May 13|
|19||R. v. Sullivan||Ont.||May 13
|20||R. v. Badger||Sask.||May 16
|21||R. v. Safdar||Ont.||May 18|
|22||Barendregt v. Grebliunas
Decision rendered from the bench
|B.C.||Dec. 2, 2021
(written reasons May 20, 2022)
|23||R. v. Bissonnette*||Que.||May 27
|24||B.J.T. v. J.D.*
Decision rendered from the bench
|P.E.I.||Dec. 2, 2021
(written reasons June 3, 2022)
|25||R. v. Goforth
Decision rendered from the bench
|Sask.||Dec. 7, 2021
(written reasons June 10, 2022)
|26||Canada (Attorney General) v. Collins Family Trust||B.C.||June 17
||British Columbia (Attorney General) v. Council of Canadians with Disabilities*||B.C.||June 23
|28||R. v. J.J.*†
|29||Law Society of Saskatchewan v. Abrametz||Sask.||July 8
|30||Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada v. Entertainment Software Association*||F.C.A.||July 15
|31||R. v. Sundman||B.C.||July 21|
|32||R. v. Lafrance||Alta.||July 22
|33||R. v. Kirkpatrick*||B.C.||July 29
|34||R. v. Schneider||B.C.||Oct. 7
|35||R. v. Tessier||Alta.||Oct. 14
|36||Annapolis Group Inc. v. Halifax Regional Municipality||N.S.||Oct. 21
||R. v. Nahanee||B.C.||Oct. 27
|38||R. v. Ndhlovu*||Alta.||Oct. 28
|39||R. v. Sharma*||Ont.||Nov. 4
||R. v. Doxtator||Ont.||Nov. 9
|41||Peace River Hydro Partners v. Petrowest Corp.
|42||Des Groseillers v. Quebec (Agence du revenu)||Que.||Nov. 17
|43||Nova Chemicals Corp. v. Dow Chemical Co.
|44||R. v. Ramelson*
|45||R. v. Jaffer||Ont.||Nov. 24
|46||R. v. Haniffa||Ont.||Nov. 24
|47||R. v. Dare||Ont.||Nov. 24
|48||Canada (Transportation Safety Board) v. Carroll-Byrne||N.S.||Nov. 25
|49||R. v. Clark||Sask.||Nov. 30
||R. v. D.R.||N.L.||Dec. 1
|51||F. v. N.*||Ont.||Dec. 2
|52||R. v. Furey||N.L.||Dec. 2
|53||R. v. Vernelus||Que.||Dec. 6
|54||R. v. Beaver†||Alta.||Dec. 9
* = See Notable Decisions
† This decision covers more than one case.
The statue Veritas
On the evening of January 29, 2017, 46 people gathered at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City for an evening of prayer. A stranger armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol entered the mosque and opened fire. He killed six people and seriously injured five others. This despicable act of violence left the survivors, victims’ loved ones and many other Canadians with deep psychological scars.
Alexandre Bissonnette pled guilty to 12 charges including six counts of first degree murder and was automatically sentenced to life in prison. In determining when the man could apply for parole, the Crown urged the trial judge to apply section 745.51 of the Criminal Code, which permitted back-to-back 25-year periods of parole ineligibility. The judge ordered the offender to serve 40 years in prison before he could apply for parole – five 25-year sentences to be served at the same time, plus another 15 years for the sixth murder.
The offender appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeal. It found the law unconstitutional, yet sentenced the offender to six 25-year sentences at the same time. The Crown appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court declared section 745.51 unconstitutional. It said the provision violates Canadians’ rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. It said a life sentence without a realistic possibility of parole presupposes the offender is beyond redemption and cannot be rehabilitated. This is degrading in nature and incompatible with human dignity.
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Wagner said imposing imprisonment for 50, 75, 100 or 150 years, “authorizes a court to order an offender to serve an ineligibility period that exceeds the life expectancy of any human being, a sentence so absurd that it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”
The Court also said its decision, “must not be seen as devaluing the life of each innocent victim” and that, “eligibility for parole is not a right to parole.”
The decision to declare section 745.51 invalid from the time it was enacted in 2011 means the offender in this case, and others, may apply for parole after serving 25 years in prison.
The Supreme Court of Canada is proud to be an active member of the international judicial community. Judges are committed to several organizations, such as the Association of Francophone Constitutional Courts (ACCF), the Association des Hautes Juridictions de Cassation des pays ayant en partage l’usage du Français, the International Association of Supreme Administrative Jurisdictions and the World Conference on Constitutional Justice.
In May 2022, Chief Justice Richard Wagner participated in the Congress of the ACCF in Dakar, Senegal. The theme was, “The constitutional judge and human rights”. This Congress marked the end of Chief Justice Wagner’s three-year presidency of the organization.
Throughout the year, Chief Justice Wagner participated in events in Singapore, Finland, France, the United States and Ireland. Justices Sheilah Martin and Nicholas Kasirer joined the Chief Justice for a judicial exchange with the Supreme Court of Ireland. Meeting with their Irish counterparts, they discussed court modernization, bilingualism and comparative law. Members of Canada’s Supreme Court were equally pleased to host a delegation from the Supreme Court of Israel in Ottawa. Chief Justice Wagner also had a number of virtual meetings with his counterparts, including with the Chief Justices of Japan and South Africa.
In October 2022, Chief Justice Wagner met with the President of the Supreme Court of Ukraine Vsevolod Kniaziev, at an international judicial conference organized by the National Judicial Institute in Ottawa. Chief Justice Kniaziev explained what it was like for judges to administer justice during a war. Later, he and his delegation visited the Supreme Court of Canada. The judges were deeply moved by Chief Justice Kniaziev’s resolve to uphold the rule of law, which is itself under attack in Ukraine.
Judicial exchanges offer members of the Supreme Court opportunities to share best practices and discuss topics of mutual interest, such as post-pandemic modernization, judicial independence and equality rights. They contribute to promoting a culture of judicial excellence and a strong and independent judiciary.
The Chief Justice Wagner met virtually with Chief Justice Saburo Tokura of Japan
Delegation from the Supreme Court of Israel
Singapore Academy of Law annual lecture
Public discussion about justice and democracy, Paris, France
Supreme Court of Canada delegation to the Supreme Court of Ireland, Dublin
Association of Francophone Constitutional Courts, Dakar, Senegal