Common Law and Civil Code: Canada’s legal system


I’m taking a law course at the University of Calgary and am learning more about Canada’s legal system, which is based on both English and French systems, brought to Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries by colonists. 

Common law is law that is not written down as legislation. It has evolved into a system of rules based on precedent (what judges have decided in similar cases). Canada’s common law cannot be found in any code or body of legislation, only in past decisions. As Canadian courts add to Canada’s body of common law, it can be adapted to changing times and circumstances. Common law is used in noncriminal cases in all Canadian provinces other than Quebec.

Quebec’s noncriminal legal system uses a civil code based on the French Code Napoléon (Napoleonic Code). Civil codes are usually framed in broad, general principles that discuss how to deal with disputes. Unlike common law courts, courts in a civil law system like Quebec’s first look to a civil code, then refer to previous decisions to see if they’re consistent. Quebec’s civil code is applied to civil private matters, although in areas of law under federal jurisdiction (national security, for example), all Canadian provinces are subject to common law and most criminal matters are decided through Canada’s Criminal Code, which applies throughout Canada.

Catherine Fisher, blogger

Image: Jean Gagnon, Quebec Court of Appeal, Ernest-Cormier Building, Montreal