The Superior Court of Justice in Ontario has inherent jurisdiction over criminal, civil, and family cases, arising from Ontario’s common law traditions. The Court’s inherent jurisdiction gives it authority to hear any matter that is not specifically assigned to another level of court. The Court also has authority over matters granted to it by federal and provincial statutes.
The Superior Court of Justice is a superior court of criminal jurisdiction. The Court has the power to try any indictable offence under the Criminal Code of Canada. However, the Superior Court generally only tries the most serious criminal offences. These include murder, manslaughter, drug trafficking, and other offences against the security of the state, or an attempt or conspiracy to commit one of these offences. An individual accused of any of these offences is tried by a judge of the Superior Court, sitting either with or without a jury.
The Superior Court also hears appeals from summary conviction cases heard in the Ontario Court of Justice.
The Superior Court of Justice hears all civil proceedings in Ontario including commercial matters, personal injury, bankruptcy and insolvency cases, and litigation involving wills and estates.
The Superior Court also has some appellate jurisdiction under various statutes.
Since family law involves both federal and provincial statutes, jurisdiction over family proceedings in Ontario is divided between the Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Justice in most court locations. Both courts preside over child and spousal support and child custody and access; however, under federal law, the Superior Court has sole jurisdiction in all cases involving divorce and the division of property. Under provincial law, child protection and adoption cases must be commenced in the Ontario Court of Justice.
In 25 of the 52 Superior Court locations, this split jurisdiction has been unified by the Courts of Justice Act, which created the Family Court as a branch of the Superior Court. At any Family Court site, all family matters are heard, including divorce, division of property, child and spousal support, child custody and access, child protection, and adoption.
The Family Court was originally known as the “Unified Family Court,” and began as a pilot project in Hamilton in 1977. In 1995, Family Courts were established in Barrie (Central East Region), London (Southwest Region), and Kingston and Napanee (East Region). In 1999, the project expanded to include 12 more sites: Bracebridge, Cobourg, Lindsay, Newmarket, Oshawa, and Peterborough (Central East Region), Brockville, Cornwall, L’Orignal, Ottawa, and Perth (East Region), and St. Catharines (Central South Region). In 2019, it expanded to include 8 more sites: Belleville, Pembroke, and Picton (East Region), Cayuga, Kitchener, Simcoe, and Welland, (Central South Region), and St. Thomas (Southwest Region).
Divisional Court Jurisdiction
The Divisional Court is an appellate branch of the Superior Court. It functions as the primary forum for judicial review of government action in Ontario and hears statutory appeals from decisions of provincial administrative tribunals. In addition, the Divisional Court hears some family and civil appeals. Divisional Court proceedings are usually heard and decided by a panel of three judges but may be heard by a single judge in some circumstances.
Small Claims Court Jurisdiction
The Small Claims Court branch of the Superior Court of Justice is an extraordinarily busy court in Ontario, handling nearly half of all civil claims in the province. Approximately 45% of all civil cases heard in Ontario are commenced in the Small Claims Court.
The Small Claims Court provides an efficient and cost-effective forum for Ontarians to bring or defend civil claims seeking up to $35,000 in monetary or property damages.
Typically, deputy judges preside over proceedings in the Small Claims Court. Deputy judges are senior lawyers appointed for a three-year term by the Regional Senior Judge, with the approval of the Attorney General. The Small Claims Court Administrative Judge may also hear Small Claims Court proceedings pursuant to s. 24(2) of the Courts of Justice Act. In addition, all Superior Court judges are also judges of the Small Claims Court.