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The Canadian legal system is based largely on the English common law system, with the civil law system operating in the province of Quebec. The legislative procedures at both the federal and provincial levels closely follow the model of the British parliament. The court system is also derived from the court system of Great Britain, but with important features also set out in the Canadian Constitution.

You can find a number of good articles on the basics of Canadian law and government in the Canadian Encyclopedia, which often link to related articles with references to print and on-line resources for further reading. See, for example:

  • Law - outlines the general features of the Canadian legal system
  • Courts - outlines the basic court structure and provides links to short articles about the Supreme Court, the Federal Court and other useful articles and web sites
  • Acts & Statutes
  • Parliament - links to shorter articles and definitions for many terms associated with the Canadian system of government

Getting started: some considerations

  • Some basic terminology for the area of law you are researching will help get you started in searching legal research tools; relevant terminology can be found in legal texts, journal articles, and legal dictionaries 
  • Legal research tools can provide a broad overview or very specific details, depending on how you search them 
  • There may be both legislation and court cases that will be relevant to what you need
  • Jurisdiction - the geographic area that a particular law applies to - is a key consideration in legal research, for both legislation and case law


Jurisdiction as it Applies to Legislation

Sections 91 and 92 of the Canadian Constitution set out the areas of Canadian law that are under federal jurisdiction, and those that are under provincial or territorial jurisdiction. Legislation passed by the federal parliament will apply to all of Canada, while legislation passed by a provincial or territorial legislature will apply only to the province or territory that passed the legislation. When you search for legislation on particular topics in a comprehensive legal database like Quicklaw, Westlaw, or Canlii, relevant legislation from all jursidictions will be retrieved, unless you limit the search to a particular jurisdiction. This will help you determine what may be applicable to you - e.g. federal legislation that applies to all of Canada, provincial legislation that applies only to the province/territory that passed it, or a combination of both. Many areas of law have relevant legislation at both federal and provincial levels.

Jurisdiction as it applies to Case Law

Jurisdiction also applies to case law, but in a less clear cut way than it does to legislation. For example, although case law from a particular province is generally considered to be more applicable to issues taking place in that province than cases from other provinces, there are other factors a judge may take into consideration when deciding whether an earlier case can be used as a precedent in the current case. It is strongly recommended that whenever you are researching case law for a personal matter, you obtain the assistance of a qualified legal professional. 

Subject Librarian

Grant Kayler
1-01L Rutherford Library South
(780) 492-3305