The Federal Court of Canada was created on June 1, 1971 by the Federal Court Act. Originally, the Court was composed of a Trial Division and an Appeal Division. As of July 2, 2003, the two divisions became separate courts – the Federal Court (as it is now known) and the Federal Court of Appeal.
While the Federal Court is now less than 50 years old, its roots go back well over a century to the creation of its predecessor, the Exchequer Court of Canada.
At Confederation in 1867, the British North America Act, 1867 (now the Constitution Act, 1867) did not establish particular courts but, in section 101, it authorized Parliament to provide for a "General Court of Appeal for Canada" and "any additional Courts for the better Administration of the Laws of Canada." Accordingly, Parliament passed legislation in 1875 creating the Supreme Court of Canada and the Exchequer Court of Canada. Decisions of the Exchequer Court could be appealed to the Supreme Court and, until 1949, from there to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom.
At first, the Exchequer Court had a limited exclusive jurisdiction over revenue cases against the Crown. It shared jurisdiction with provincial courts in actions brought by the Crown, including proceedings to enforce federal revenue laws, and civil actions based on common law or equity.
Over the life of the Exchequer Court, its jurisdiction gradually increased and changed. Within the first twenty-five years, it had acquired exclusive jurisdiction over all actions against the Crown. Its authority also extended to admiralty matters, and to suits relating to industrial property, such as patents and trade-marks. Tax and citizenship matters were also added. In 1960, the Court was recognized as a superior court of criminal jurisdiction in respect of certain offences under the Combines Investigation Act.
When created in 1971, the Federal Court of Canada inherited the Exchequer Court’s jurisdiction and new areas were added. Most importantly, the Court was given the power to review decisions of all federal boards, commissions, and tribunals. It also acquired jurisdiction over claims relating to aeronautics, interprovincial undertakings, bills of exchange and promissory notes.
Significant changes were introduced in 1992. Litigants seeking relief against the Crown were granted the option of proceeding in provincial courts; the Court’s exclusive jurisdiction remained where federal statutes so provided. At the same time, judicial review procedures were revised and simplified. In particular, the Trial Division was granted jurisdiction to review decisions of most federal decision-makers, except those falling expressly to the Appeal Division.
While judicial review occupies much of the Federal Court's time today, the spectrum of its subject-matter jurisdiction is vast. It includes Crown actions, immigration, citizenship, national security, indigenous peoples, human rights, admiralty, customs, intellectual property, tax, labour relations, transportation, communications, parole and corrections. And the Federal Court’s role continues to grow. Often, consistent with the Court’s original mandate to ensure the better administration of the laws of Canada, new legislation expands the Court’s jurisdiction into new domains.