Differences between the Canadian and American Legal Systems

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Despite Canada’s physical and cultural proximity to the United States, Canadians are quick to point out the larger cultural differences such as free health care in Canada, our penchant for politeness and our rainbow-hued currency. But many Canadians, raised on a diet of American movies and television, are unaware that our legal systems are quite different. Although the American and Canadian legal systems are both based on British common law, in practice there are significant distinctions.

The following is a list of a few things you may not know about the legal system in Canada, as it relates to criminal law:

1. Criminal law is under federal jurisdiction

In the U.S., criminal law varies from state to state. But in Canada, there is only one federal criminal law and Criminal Code across the country.

2. No death penalty

  • In the United States, 31 states still have the death penalty. The last execution in Canada was performed on December 11, 1962 at the Don Jail in Toronto, but the death penalty for murder wasn’t officially abolished in Canada until 1976.

3. Judges are appointed by the government, not elected

  • Our judiciary in Canada is independent, but judges in provincial courts are appointed and paid for by the provincial governments. Other judges, the Supreme Court of Canada and in superior and federal courts, are appointed by the federal government and paid for by the provincial governments.

4. Canadian courts are bilingual

  • Canada has two official languages – English and French. Language rights are protected in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Everyone is entitled to a trial in either English or French.

5. You cannot “Plead the Fifth”

  • In the United States, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. This amendment protects a person from being compelled to be a witness against him or herself in a criminal case. “Pleading the Fifth” allows a witness to decline to answer questions where the answers might incriminate him or her. Canadians have a similar protection against self-incrimination under section 13 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but witnesses are not able to excuse themselves from testifying.

There are of course many more differences between the Canadian and American legal systems, some of which will be addressed in later blog posts.

If you have any questions about the differences between criminal law in Canada and the United States, please contact Affleck & Barrison online or at 905-404-1947.