History of the Court
Courts in Rupert’s Land and the North West Territories
Indigenous peoples in what is now Alberta had a long tradition of resolving disputes through a system of community based restorative initiatives, storytelling and elder advice.
The British Parliament in 1803 permitted magistrates and Justices of the Peace to be appointed by the Governor of Lower Canada beyond the borders of Upper and Lower Canada. Further legislation in 1821 permitted Justices of the Peace “to sit and hold Courts of Record for the Trial of Criminal Offences” in the territories then being administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company, known as Rupert’s Land.
Following the North West Territories becoming part of Canada in 1869, in 1873 the Parliament of Canada permitted the Governor General to appoint magistrates and created the North West Mounted Police. In 1874 and 1879, the commissioner of the police and then assistant commissioners were given the powers of a magistrate. In 1880, legal qualifications were required for magistrates.
Magistrates and Provincial Court Judges
In 1906, the newly created province of Alberta established An Act respecting Police Magistrates and Justices of the Peace, SA 1906 c13. The legislation provided for magistrates to be appointed that have practiced law for at least three years. In 1922, the requirement of legal experience was eliminated for police magistrates. In 1955, the designation “police magistrate” was changed to “magistrate.”
The new Province also established District Courts (An Act respecting the District Courts, SA 1907 c4) and a Supreme Court for Alberta (An Act respecting the Supreme Court, SA 1907 c3). These courts would eventually become the Court of Queen’s Bench and the Court of Appeal of Alberta.
A Juvenile Court was created in 1913, and in 1918 magistrates were given powers to hear “small debts”. The first Family Court was created in 1952. Magistrates had jurisdiction over the Small Debts Court and sat in the Juvenile Court and the Family Court along with judges from the Supreme and the District courts.
An amendment to the Police Magistrates and Justices Act in 1970, An Act to Amend the Police Magistrates and Justices Act, SA 1970 c 71, changed the names of magistrates to Provincial Judge. The Provincial Court Act of 1971, SA 1971 c 86, created the Provincial Court of Alberta.
In 1975, Justice Cam Kirby conducted a review of the Court, which resulted in the “Administration of Justice in the Provincial Courts of Alberta” report, or the “Kirby Report”. Most of the recommendations of the report were accepted and implemented in the following years.
The Court as it exists today was established in 1978, by the Provincial Court Act 1978, SA 1978 c 70 (in effect on May 15, 1980). The Act amalgamated what used to be the Magistrates Court (Provincial Court since 1973), the Juvenile Court, the Small Claims Court and the Family Court to form the modern Provincial Court, and instituted four key service areas: Family, Youth, Small Claims (currently called Civil) and Criminal.
For the first four decades that it operated in its current form, the Court was known as the Provincial Court of Alberta, and those presiding over trials were referred to as Judges. In 2023, the Court took its current name of the Alberta Court of Justice.
Justices of the Peace
The Justices of the Peace played an important role in the criminal justice system since ancient times. In the English legal system this office was created to perform local government functions, including that of magistrate. English justices of the peace, although often not legally trained and unpaid, had wide powers to commence criminal proceedings, conduct trials and give sentence in the form of substantial fines or imprisonment up to six months. The office was considered vital to the criminal justice system partly because of the rural nature of the population and the impracticality of placing judges at each location. Additionally, the local Justice could bring to bear upon a case his knowledge of local affairs and of the accused himself.
In Canada, the office of Justice of the Peace was preserved when in 1892 the Criminal Code of Canada was adopted. Pursuant to the Criminal Code, Justices of the Peace are empowered to receive and swear informations, issue warrants for arrest and issue search warrants.
Initially, Canada followed the English example in that Justices of the Peace were not salaried, but paid on a case by case basis. Usually they were untrained local citizens who were not full time government employees. As the volume of cases increased, and as the provincial courts were expanded to cover rural areas, it became customary to appoint a senior Court clerk as a Justice of the Peace to receive informations, as well as grant adjournments and hear bail applications when a provincial Judge was not available to do so.
The Justice Statutes Amendment Act 1998, S.A. 1998, c. 18 (in force February 1, 1999), increased the judicial functions of Justices of the Peace to the current practice. As a practical development, Justices of the Peace in urban centres started working on a full time basis. As a consequence of this Act, a law degree became a requirement for Justices of the Peace.
Education was always a priority for the Magistrates Court and the Alberta Court of Justice. Starting in 1956, the newly created Alberta Magistrates Association commenced annual education conferences for its members. The first conference was held on December 28, 1956 at the Legislative Building in Edmonton. The current Alberta Provincial Judges Association and the Society of Justices of the Peace for Alberta adhere to the tradition of continuing education with two annual education conferences.
The current Alberta Court of Justice is the first point of contact between the justice system and an individual. In recent years, the Alberta Court of Justice has become the deciding court for the majority of the legal disputes litigated in the Province. Close to 130,000 cases were commenced in the 2018-19 fiscal year in Adult Criminal Court and about 8,000 were started in Youth Criminal Court. Civil Court commenced close to 16,000 claims in 2018-19 and Family Court commenced more than 20,000 family claims and child applications in the same fiscal year.
The past 40 years have brought a lot of change in the Court with the recognition that the traditional adversarial process is not necessarily the most appropriate process for every crime, or for every population. As a result, different special courts have been set to deal with cases in a therapeutic and culturally appropriate manner.
Alberta Board of Review, Provincial Courts, Administration of Justice in the Provincial Courts of Alberta (Edmonton: The Board, )
Attorney General for Alberta, Courts in Alberta (Edmonton: Attorney General for Alberta, 1979)
Ell v Alberta, 1999 ABQB 45
Peter Bowal and Tyler Ivie, “The expanding role of the Justice of the Peace” (April/May 2004) Law Now 19.