Law, Government and the DOJ in Canada

Natalie Fraser for The Lawyers Weekly

1. Which Canadian laws are federal, provincial and municipal?

The Constitution Act creates a federal system of government in Canada. This type of government divides the authority to make laws between the Canadian federal government in Ottawa, and the provincial governments in every province. Canada's two territories have territorial councils with some powers to pass laws.

Generally, the Constitution gives the federal government the power to make laws in areas that affect Canada as a whole. These include Canadian unemployment insurance, criminal law, the postal service, national defense, marriage and divorce, and currency, as well as many others. The federal government has jurisdiction to make laws in the specific areas assigned to it under the Constitution, and those laws are valid throughout Canada.

The Constitution gives the provincial Canadian governments power to make laws of a local nature, in areas such as education, property, prisons, hospitals, and provincial court systems. Each province has jurisdiction to make its own laws in these areas, but the laws are only valid within the borders of that province.

Canadian provinces also have the power to create municipalities within their borders. The provinces delegate some of their law-making powers to the municipalities. Most Canadian provinces have a Municipal Act setting out the law-making powers delegated to the municipalities, in areas such as transportation, waste management, public utilities, parks and licensing matters.

2. What is the Canadian Department of Justice?

The Department of Justice (DOJ), a branch of the Canadian government, has a mandate to provide Canadians with a fair, accessible and efficient justice system. It assists the government in developing policy issues, and in drafting and reforming laws when necessary. Another major role involves the provision of legal services and counsel to the departments and agencies of the federal government. The DOJ acts as the "law firm" of the federal government.

In acting as the Canadain federal government's legal adviser, the DOJ assists all government departments in developing, updating and interpreting laws. For example, since all new laws must be consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the DOJ must examine every law on this basis. The DOJ assists the government with every aspect involved in the creation of new laws, from Cabinet approval to the drafting of bills to enactment by Parliament, and ensures that the laws meet all legal requirements. Another duty of the DOJ involves assisting with the drafting of the regulations that accompany new laws to ensure they are legally valid.

In providing legal services to the Canadian government, the DOJ must act to defend the government when it becomes involved in a lawsuit. As well, it provides legal advice as needed to other federal departments and agencies. Although the Canadian provinces carry out prosecutions under the Criminal Code, the DOJ carries out prosecutions under all other federal laws, including drug offences.

The DOJ has an active policy department, founded on the values of Canadian society. These policies promote respect for the rights and freedoms of Canadians. Fairness and access to the justice system form the basis of any policy developed by the DOJ and any policy advice given by the DOJ to other government departments. The DOJ often carries out consultations with various groups and organizations in order to determine trends in public policy. To obtain as many views as possible on topics such as youth justice, rights of Canadian victims of crime, public security and bio-technology, the DOJ consults with Canadians through conferences, community workshops, and surveys.

The DOJ maintains a head office in Ottawa and regional offices in every province. Lawyers make up roughly half of the Department's large staff, and the rest include research and communications experts, paralegals, and support workers. Representatives of the DOJ stay in touch with regional issues through its network of offices across the country, making it possible for them to assist the government in developing policies and laws that reflect Canada's diversity.

Natalie Fraser practised law in Whitby, Ontario for seventeen years and is now a freelance legal writer. She often writes for The Lawyers Weekly.

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