The Superior Court of Justice in Ontario is unique among the courts of the province: it is a court of “inherent jurisdiction”, meaning that it does not derive its existence from legislation, as the other courts of the province do. Instead, the Superior Court’s jurisdiction is rooted in the history of the first courts of England, whose authority over government actions were based in the Magna Carta. The Superior Court of today is entrenched in our modern Canadian Constitution, guaranteeing that the Court continues its inherent and protective authority. Members of the public who engage in proceedings in the Superior Court should know that they are participating in a court process that distinctively traces its foundation to the very beginnings of the Common Law system.
The origins of the Superior Court of Justice can be traced back to the 1790s, when what is now Ontario was known as Upper Canada. At that time, the court system was based on English common law and modelled after the English system. By the 1830s, Upper Canada had a fully-functioning judicial system including superior, county and district courts, a court of equity (called the Court of Chancery), and a small claims court (called Division Court).
The common law and equity courts were merged in 1881 under the Ontario Judicature Act to create the new Supreme Court of Ontario with two branches: the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal. More recent milestones include the creation of the Divisional Court, which was added to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1970, and the establishment of a province-wide District Court combining district and county courts and general sessions courts in 1985.
The Courts of Justice Act establishes the current legal framework for Ontario’s court structure and court proceedings. The Act was substantially rewritten in 1989 to implement reforms designed to make the court system more accessible.
The Courts of Justice Amendment Act, 1989 created one large superior trial court when the High Court of Justice of Ontario merged with the District Court and the Surrogate Court. This new superior trial court was called the Ontario Court (General Division). The former provincial court continued on as the Ontario Court (Provincial Division). The Small Claims Court and the Divisional Court were continued as branches of the General Division. The court reform legislation also regionalized the administration of the courts by creating eight judicial regions for the General Division.
In 1994, the Courts of Justice Statute Law Amendment Act established the Family Court as a branch of the Ontario Court (General Division). The Family Court was originally known as the “Unified Family Court,” and began as a pilot project in 1977 to unite the federal and provincial jurisdiction over family law so that all family matters could be heard in a single court. By 1999, the Family Court was a fully integrated component of the Ontario Court (General Division), and 17 Family Court sites were in effect. All 17 sites remain active today.
The name of the Ontario Court (General Division) was changed to the Superior Court of Justice in April 1999 when the Courts Improvement Act, 1996 came into force.
Beyond its seminal history, today’s Superior Court of Justice in Ontario holds a place of major importance in the Canadian judicial system. The Court presides in 52 locations across the province, and is the largest superior trial court in the country, both in the volume of cases and the number of judges. All Superior Court judges are appointed by the federal government and derive their inherent jurisdiction from their appointments under section 96 of the Constitution Act. With jurisdiction over criminal, civil, and family matters, the Superior Court of Justice is integral to delivering justice to all Ontarians.