Let’s find out more about the Supreme Court of British Columbia and the types of cases it handles.
Did you know that trials in this court usually take longer before coming to trial and last for many more days than trials in the Provincial Court? This court has a different jurisdiction than the Provincial Court. It hears only certain types of cases, as determined by legislation passed by the Government of BC.
Supreme Court judges hear cases involving civil matters such as bankruptcy, personal injury claims and contract disputes, as well as judicial reviews of administrative tribunals like the Worker’s Compensation Board. Cases of libel, slander and malicious prosecution are also heard in this court.
The judges also make orders about divorce matters such as the division of family assets and custody of the children. You may find it interesting to know that someone without legal training may be able to do their own divorce and can be guided through the process by self-help kits found on the Legal Services Society website.
Parties in court proceedings are usually represented by a lawyer, but if you ever wish to represent yourself, you can go to the BC Supreme Court Self-Help Information Centre in Vancouver where you can get the information you need to prepare for court.
If you are claiming monetary damages over $25,000, you usually file a civil claim in the Supreme Court. If the amount is $25,000 or less, you would normally start the case in the Small Claims Division of the Provincial Court.
Sometimes, civil trials, such as personal injury claims, are held before a judge and jury. A jury in a civil trial has only eight members and they do not have to reach a unanimous decision, as long as 75% (or six out of eight jurors) agree on the result after at least three hours of deliberation. The jury can also make decisions on the amount of damages awarded in a case.
Perhaps one of the most important things to know is that many civil cases are settled before going to trial. The parties to the lawsuit can agree at any time to settle their dispute without going to court. A court case can be lengthy and expensive, so a settlement can work well for both parties. Settlements can also take place during the trial.
The witnesses to the crime are compelled to come to court to testify (give evidence) even if they have changed their minds about proceeding. For example, in an assault case between husband and wife, the injured party may not want to testify. However, if the charge has been laid, it is up to Crown whether to go ahead or not.
In most criminal cases, a preliminary inquiry is held in Provincial Court before the case is heard in Supreme Court. At this time, the accused does not have to present any evidence. The Crown must prove that there is enough evidence to commit the accused to trial in Supreme Court.
If the case proceeds to the Supreme Court, the accused may be able to choose if he or she is tried by a judge alone or by a judge and jury.
For murder, skyjacking, and several other serious offences, a judge and twelve-person jury hears the trial in Supreme Court unless the accused and the Crown counsel agree to a trial by judge only. For example, in one case, where the two accused were charged with over 300 counts of murder, the parties agreed not to have a jury.
It is important to note that Supreme Court orders cannot be altered by the Provincial Court. Only the Court of Appeal for BC or the Supreme Court of Canada can modify or overturn the decisions of the Supreme Court of BC.
Let’s look at how the Supreme Court works.
The Supreme Court Act passed by the Government of BC specifies that there will be 86 judges plus the Chief Judge and Associate Chief Judge. As well, there are always a number of supernumerary or half time judges.
The Supreme Court judges sit in eight judicial districts, traveling around the province on circuit through the year.
The court also employs Supreme Court Masters who deal primarily with pre-trial matters in chambers. Masters are addressed as Master before their surname (Master White) outside of court and as ‘Your Honour’ in court.
There are no witnesses in chambers, as all evidence is filed by using a written document called an affidavit. This affidavit sets out the evidence and is sworn to by the person who is giving that evidence. Chambers matters are much shorter than trials and usually last a few minutes to a few hours.
In most cases, the judge or master will only make an interim order and will not give the final judgment in the case. A final decision will be made by a Supreme Court judge at trial.
To come to a decision, the court considers the evidence presented in a case, along with statute law, the Rules of Court, regulations and case law. It is very important that judges and masters follow the law as set out in previously decided cases.
Rules of Court govern the conduct of the case from filing the initial court documents to the conclusion of the case. For example, there is a rule of court that determines the order in which evidence may be presented at a trial.
Regulations set out practical information and procedures in relation to statute law. For example, the regulations will set out the fees payable for filing documents to get a case started.
There are ways to speed up the litigation process. For example, you may want to consider a “fast track” trial under Rule 66, which takes less than a year to complete. Or, you could consider “expedited litigation” under Rule 68 if your claim is under $100,000.
When you have an opportunity to address a judge in Supreme Court, you would say Mister or Madame Justice (last name) outside the courtroom and My Lord or My Lady inside the courtroom. If you write to a judge, you would address your letter to The Honourable Chief Justice (last name), Madam Justice (last name), or Mister Justice (last name).
You should be aware that the Supreme Court is a formal court where the judge, Crown counsel, defence counsel and the court clerk wear special court attire. Fortunately, nobody has to wear white curly wigs anymore.
Judges wear black robes for most trials and red and black robes for criminal jury trials. All the lawyers are required to wear black robes at trial. If you are in court, you should dress appropriately and conduct yourself in a courteous and respectful manner.
When the judge or master enters or leaves the courtroom, a court clerk will say "Order in court." At that time, everyone in the courtroom must stand.
Sometimes, you will see people bowing to the judge as they enter or leave the courtroom. These are lawyers who are officers of the court, and they are showing a sign of respect to the judge.
If you or any member of the public wants to see a trial or court proceeding, the courts are open for that purpose. You must stand when asked to do so, but you do not need to bow.
The judges of the Supreme Court of BC hear cases in court Monday to Friday from 10am to 12:30pm and from 2pm to 4pm.
The Supreme Court of BC Self-Help Information website has several guidebooks that give information about the court, the terms used, trials, and how to gather and use evidence and court procedure.
Find out more about this court by visiting its website. Reasons for judgment from previous cases are regularly posted on the court’s website.