Case law is created when judges interpret legislation in a case, and then this interpretation becomes the standard – sets a precedent – for the meaning of this legislation in other cases.
Canada has a “common law” system, which means that its judges are supposed to “follow” earlier decisions by other judges. This means that when a judge hears your case, they will be interested to know how other BC Supreme Court judges dealt with similar issues. If you can tell the court that another judge dealt with a similar issue and decided the way you say that they should, this will be very helpful.
For example, imagine that there is a law that says no bicycles are allowed on major roadways. A cyclist gets a ticket and then challenges this ticket in court. A judge interprets the law to define major roadways as any road with four or more lanes. The decision about major roadways becomes case law that determines how the bicycle law will be interpreted in other cases.
There are rules as to what cases a judge has to “follow”. Judges of the BC Supreme Court have to follow decisions of the BC Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada. Judges of the BC Supreme Court are expected to follow other decisions of the BC Supreme Court unless there is very good reason not to.
The BC Supreme Court does not have to follow decisions of courts from other provinces, the BC Provincial Court, nor tribunals like the Civil Resolution Tribunal. However, Supreme Court judges may find these decisions convincing and follow that case law.
One thing that complicates case law is that some court decisions that are no longer followed. This happens when the court decides that a decision was a mistake or is no longer workable given major societal changes. This is called “overturning” a decision. Once this happens, the BC Supreme Court will no longer follow that decision.
Understanding legislation and case law is challenging. What laws apply to your case and what case are relevant to your case? It’s hard to know. There may be hundreds (or even thousands) of cases that seem similar to yours. You may have trouble knowing which cases you should refer to in court.
The National Self Represented Litigant Project has created a resource to help those moving through the court system on their own with legal research. See The CanLll Primer: Legal Research Principles and CanLII Navigation for Self-Represented Litigants.
It is a good idea to consult a lawyer about the law that applies to your case. See the Guidebook called Family Law Legal Help for information getting free and affordable legal advice.
This Guidebook provides information on how to conduct legal research to identify cases that are relevant to your situation.