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Courts - An Overview of Ontario's Court System

Understanding the Ontario Court system can be confusing, especially online.

Legally (under the Courts of Justice Act), it consists of the Ontario Court of Appeal (CA), and the 'Ontario Court' (a notional court only). Practically the Ontario Court is made up of two actual courts: the Superior Court (SCJ) and the Ontario Court of Justice (OCJ). Note that while all three of these court websites have the same root directory (ontariocourts.ca), they have different visual designs and are maintained separately.

The CA is a free-standing constitutional court, the highest court in Ontario. The SCJ is also a constitutional court, with civil and criminal jurisdiction - and consists of itself (the 'main' court in Ontario), and these additional branches:

. Divisional Court
. Family Court
. Small Claims Court.

Finally, the OCJ - though a single court - has jurisdiction over the bulk of family, criminal and provincial offences in Ontario. The OCJ is the busiest court in all of Canada. Note that jurisdiction over both family and criminal law are spread over both the SCJ and the OCJ, but the OCJ has no civil jurisdiction. Because of it's lack of civil jurisdiction, I will leave the OCJ out from here on.

Thus civil jurisdiction (the main topic of this website) is spread over the Superior Court, and the Small Claims Court at the trial level, and the Divisional Court and the Ontario Court of Appeal at the appellate level.

. Reference re Code of Civil Procedure (Que.), art. 35

In Reference re Code of Civil Procedure (Que.), art. 35 (SCC, 2021) the Supreme Court of Canada reviews the status of s.96 Constitution Act courts and the jurisdictional tests that define it [these issues are expanded at paras 29-69, and the balance of the cases is useful for appreciating the role of the Superior Courts in Canada, as well as in Quebec]:
[1] The unified national judicial system is a defining feature of Canada’s judiciary. This system ensures the joint participation of the federal government and the provinces.[1] On the one hand, the Constitution grants exclusive jurisdiction over the administration of justice to the provinces, thereby empowering them to create courts and organize them. On the other hand, it places a specific category of courts, the superior courts, at the centre of the Canadian judiciary and vests the federal government with the power to appoint their judges.

[2] Over the years, the courts have endeavoured to give meaning to this characteristic of Canada’s judicial system, which stems from ss. 92(14) and 96 to 100 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The case law sought to strike a proper balance between provincial initiatives on the administration of justice and respect for one of the important compromises of the Fathers of Confederation, on which the special and inalienable status conferred on the s. 96 courts is grounded.

[3] The first question raised in these appeals is whether art. 35 para. 1 of the Code of Civil Procedure, CQLR, c. C‑25.01 (“C.C.P.”), is consistent with s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Put differently, does granting exclusive jurisdiction over civil claims for less than $85,000 to the Court of Québec create a parallel or shadow court that usurps the role reserved by the Constitution to the superior courts? In this case, the legislature has not transferred a specific jurisdiction to the provincial court, but rather an extensive and exclusive jurisdiction over a vast area at the heart of private law. This case presents an opportunity for this Court to clarify the line that the provinces must not cross in exercising their jurisdiction over the administration of justice. This question represents a new milestone in the evolution of the case law on s. 96, as it concerns a wholesale court‑to‑court transfer of jurisdiction over contractual and extracontractual obligations below a specific monetary limit, which has the effect of removing these matters from the jurisdiction of the superior courts.

[4] The purpose of s. 96 is to give effect to the compromise reached at Confederation by protecting the special status of the superior courts of general jurisdiction as the cornerstone of our unitary justice system. The principles of national unity and the rule of law are central to this organization of the judiciary. To ensure that s. 96 fulfills its function, this Court has developed various tests over time, the most recent being the three‑step test from Re Residential Tenancies Act, 1979, 1981 CanLII 24 (SCC), [1981] 1 S.C.R. 714 (“Residential Tenancies”), and the core jurisdiction test adopted in MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. v. Simpson, 1995 CanLII 57 (SCC), [1995] 4 S.C.R. 725. These two tests are based on a shared concern reflected in earlier jurisprudence: the nature and role of superior courts are to be protected, and the creation of courts with provincially appointed judges that mirror or usurp the functions of superior courts is not permitted.

[5] The three‑step Residential Tenancies test limits the granting of power or jurisdiction over a type of dispute where, at the time of Confederation, the power or jurisdiction came exclusively or primarily within the remit of the superior courts. In our view, the application of this test does not on its own render art. 35 para. 1 C.C.P. unconstitutional. Indeed, there was sufficient general involvement by the inferior courts in civil disputes pertaining to the law of contractual and extracontractual obligations in three of the four founding provinces.

[6] The second test aims to determine whether a grant of jurisdiction infringes on the superior courts’ core jurisdiction either through an alteration of their essential nature or because they are prevented from playing their central role conferred by s. 96. Article 35 para. 1 C.C.P. infringes on the superior courts’ general private law jurisdiction — an essential feature that forms part of their core jurisdiction — in a way that is inconsistent with the Constitution. Both the Superior Court and the Court of Québec play an important part in maintaining the rule of law, enjoy the guarantees of judicial independence, are composed of professional, qualified judges, and promote access to justice. These shared characteristics are essential to the proper functioning of both courts and to the protection of the public. While we acknowledge these realities, the question is nevertheless whether the province’s wholesale transfer of an exclusive jurisdiction to a court with provincially appointed judges complies with s. 96.

[7] In this distinct context, we have looked to a wide range of factors to answer that question: the scope of the jurisdiction granted by art. 35 para. 1 C.C.P., the exclusivity of the grant, the high monetary limit, the available appeal mechanisms, and the absence of a societal objective capable of justifying the legislation. The weighing of the relevant factors leads us to conclude that the grant to the Court of Québec of exclusive jurisdiction over civil disputes concerning contractual and extracontractual obligations up to a value of less than $85,000 unduly compromises the position of s. 96 courts and is unconstitutional. The scope of the jurisdiction granted by art. 35 para. 1 C.C.P., combined with the various features of the institutional context in which that jurisdiction is exercised, transforms the Court of Québec into a prohibited parallel court and impermissibly infringes on the core jurisdiction of the Superior Court. This necessarily undermines the crucial role the Quebec Superior Court plays in the Canadian judicial system.

[8] We agree with the Court of Appeal that the monetary limit is too high when considered in its historical and institutional contexts. It is noteworthy that the transfer of jurisdiction to the Court of Québec not only grants a broad civil jurisdiction in the area of obligations that is circumscribed by a monetary limit, but also removes that jurisdiction from the Quebec Superior Court. This improperly impinges on the Superior Court’s ability to hear and rule on disputes in a field at the heart of Quebec private law. No other court with provincially appointed judges in Canada has a comparable exclusive jurisdiction in civil matters: the other provinces retain a form of concurrent jurisdiction between courts with provincially appointed judges and s. 96 courts.

[9] Other characteristics of the Court of Québec likewise support the conclusion that the impugned article oversteps the bounds of constitutionality. Both courts hear civil cases involving contractual and extracontractual matters and apply the same laws and procedural rules in adjudicating them. Further, the Court of Québec’s decisions can be appealed directly to the Quebec Court of Appeal. As a result, the jurisdiction provided for in art. 35 para. 1 C.C.P. gives the Court of Québec every appearance of being a parallel court and undermines the central role reserved to the superior courts in the Canadian judicial system by ss. 96 to 100 of the Constitution Act, 1867. It is difficult to see what remains to distinguish the Court of Québec from a constitutionally protected superior court.
. Bank of Montreal v. Georgakopoulos

In Bank of Montreal v. Georgakopoulos (Ont CA, 2021) the Court of Appeal considered it's broad jurisdictional range over civil matters:
[5] As to jurisdiction, the Bank’s action was for (i) repayment of amounts it alleged had been drawn by the appellants under a line of credit facility, after the facility was supposed to have been cancelled and after the security the appellants had provided for loans under the Line of Credit Agreement had been discharged; (ii) an equitable mortgage to secure those amounts; and (iii) payment by Peter of a credit card debt. The Superior Court of Justice has subject matter jurisdiction over all those claims. As this court stated in 80 Wellesley St. East Ltd. v. Fundy Bay Builders Ltd., 1972 CanLII 535 (ON CA), [1972] 2 O.R. 280 (C.A.), at 282, except where there is a specific provision to the contrary, the Superior Court’s jurisdiction is unrestricted in substantive law in civil matters. Nor is there merit to the appellants’ argument that there was an absence of personal jurisdiction over them, or that they have sovereign immunity.


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