Criminal law in Ontario is split between two courts: the Ontario Court of Justice and the Superior Court of Justice. The Superior Court of Justice is a higher court than the Ontario Court of Justice, though both deal with similar matters.
The Superior Court of Justice oversees not only criminal matters, but civil matters as well, including matters where two private parties are litigating against one another, and family court matters.
Just as in the Ontario Court of Justice, criminal matters in Superior Court move through the system pursuant to a charging document. At the Superior Court level, this document is known as an “indictment”. An indictment is usually a written accusation against an individual, signed by a Crown. It contains all of the characteristics of an information found at the Ontario Court of Justice.
In Superior Court, the individuals who preside over matters are generally judges, but can also be masters. Masters are judicial officers who have the authority to hear civil motions. They do not preside over criminal matters.
There are three different kinds of criminal offences in Canada: summary offences, indictable offences, and hybrid offences. Summary offences are the least serious and carry the least harsh sentences: a maximum of two years in jail, a fine of up to $5000, or both. Indictable offences are the more serious offences, and carry sentencing possibilities of more than two years in custody and fines of over $5000, or both. Hybrid offences are offences that can either be summary or indictable, with the Crown electing how the matter will proceed. Only indictable offences can be heard at the Superior Court.
Since both the Ontario Court of Justice and the Superior Court of Justice can address criminal matters, there are methods to determine where a criminal matter will be heard. The basic rule of thumb is that most criminal matters will be heard at the Ontario Court of Justice, despite the Superior Court having jurisdiction to hear any criminal matter. Typically, though, the only criminal matters that make their way to Superior Court are the most serious cases, involving murder, high-level frauds, and terrorism charges, among others.
Both the Crown and the accused have the power to decide whether a matter will be heard at the Ontario Court of Justice or the Superior Court of Justice. Deciding which court will hear a matter depends on elections based on provisions found in the Criminal Code. It is important to note that if the accused wishes to have a trial with a judge and jury, the matter must be heard in Superior Court, as that option is not available at the Ontario Court of Justice.
It is efficient for most criminal cases to be heard at the Ontario Court of Justice, because the Superior Court of Justice acts as an appeal court for the Ontario Court when the offence is a summary offence (and most offences are summary offences). Appeals can only be heard at a higher level of court, so hearing criminal cases at the Ontario Court level allows a clear and efficient appeal route – though appeals are their own complex processes. If the offence is an indictable offence, the appeal will go to the Court of Appeal.
Cases which are initially heard at the Superior Court level can also be appealed. For civil cases, appeals go to either the Divisional Court or Court of Appeal. For criminal cases, appeals go to the Court of Appeal.