In order to understand the court system in Alberta, it helps to remember a few things.
First, the courts are hierarchical. This means that each level can overturn or change decisions from the lower levels.
Second, each level of court has different rules about the type of legal matters it can hear. Some of these rules have even been written down in statute. For example, the Provincial Court Act governs the Provincial Court of Alberta. This is the lowest level of court in the province and because it is governed by the Provincial Court Act it cannot hear any matters that are not included in the Act.
The Provincial Court of Alberta hears the majority of lower-level criminal offences which often include quasi-criminal environmental offences.
The next level of Court is the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta. This level of court is not governed by statute but rather is called a Section 96 Court which means that the Constitution Act, 1867 has awarded this level of court jurisdiction over any matters that occur in the court’s respective province or territory. If you have a matter that cannot go to Provincial Court or you choose to have your matter heard at the Court of Queen’s Bench, you go there first. Otherwise, if you have a matter heard at the Provincial Court of Alberta and decide to appeal the decision, you can go to the Court of Queen’s Bench for a secondary review of your matter.
An even higher level of court is the Court of Appeal of Alberta. The Court of Appeal hears appeals on decisions made in the Court of Queen’s Bench. This is the highest level of court in the province.
The Supreme Court of Canada is the final appeal court in the country – it is the highest court in the land and sets precedent for all lower courts in the country. Appeals from all of the provinces can make their way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
There is also another branch of the court system called the Federal Court system. The Federal Court can hear federal legal disputes such as immigration and refugee matters or matters involving different departments of the federal government. This level of court is also limited by statute and can only hear matters that are assigned to it in the Federal Courts Act. Decisions from the Federal Court can be appealed up to the Federal Court of Appeal which is also governed by the Federal Courts Act.
For a better understanding of how this works, here is a chart from the Government of Alberta which illustrates the Canadian courts system:
Courtesy of the Government of Canada
A number of environmental law decisions are also heard at the tribunal level. Tribunals run parallel to the court system and may resemble a court because they are authorized to make decisions when a dispute arises.
There are two main differences between a court and a tribunal. First, a tribunal is set up to be a faster, easier and less formal process for those individuals who may seek out a tribunal’s help and second, those individuals who sit on a tribunal often have specific knowledge about the tribunal topic but may not be lawyers, judges, or experts in the law in general. For example, environmental tribunals may be comprised of environmental lawyers, scientists and engineers.
One example is the Environmental Appeals Board. You may seek the help of the Environmental Appeals Board if, for example, you apply for a permit under the Water Act to operate a water license. In the event that the approval writers issue a decision that you believe is incorrect, you can appeal their decision to the Environmental Appeals Board. The Board will review the decision and will go through a process of mediation between all parties in an attempt to reach an agreement. In the event that an agreement cannot be reached, the Environmental Appeals Board will conduct a hearing and will make a final decision. The Environmental Appeals Board also hears appeals from the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Emissions Management and Climate Resilience Act,  and the Government Organization Act.
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 Federal Courts Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. F-7.
 Department of Justice, “How the Courts are Organized” (27 July 2017) Government of Canada online: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/ccs-ajc/02.html.
 Water Act, RSA 2000, c W-3.
 Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, RSA 2000, c E-12.
 Emissions Management and Climate Resilience Act, SA 2003, c E-7.8.
 Government Organization Act, RSA 2000, c G-10.
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