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Supreme Court of Canada’s trends disclose faster decision-making, more criminal cases in 2021

More than half the cases heard by the Supreme Court of Canada last year were criminal appeals.

PHOTO: Stock
More than half the cases heard by the Supreme Court of Canada last year were criminal appeals — with fewer than one-quarter of its hearings in 2021 involving private law, new court statistics disclose.
On April 12, the first day of its spring session, the top court published its “Year in Review” for 2021 — featuring candid photos of its judges and staff, as well as graphic representations of the court’s workflow, plain language summaries of some of the year’s most important cases, as well as links to all the courts’ decisions last year and a summary of other court activities.
Supreme Court of Canada – The Supreme Court’s fourth annual review, disseminated on social media and posted on the court’s website, is part of Chief Justice Richard Wagner’s ongoing efforts, after he assumed the court’s leadership in December 2017, to make the court’s work more understandable and accessible to Canadians


A well-received move in 2021 was the court’s pioneering decision to provide journalists, who sign strict confidentiality and embargo undertakings, with remote online access to selected particularly important or complex decisions for an hour and a half before the judgments are publicly released. The aim is to enable journalists to report quickly and accurately, once the judgment embargo is lifted, without having to be physically locked up beforehand in the close quarters of the media room of the Ottawa courthouse (the Supreme Court’s building was closed to “visitors” in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Supreme Court rolled out the first prejudgment remote lockup for journalists on March 25, 2021, the day the high court upheld the constitutionality of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act.

Ten days earlier, Chief Justice Wagner for the first time hoisted a newly created flag up the eastern flagpole in front of the Supreme Court’s imposing art deco building. The court’s new red, white and gold heraldic emblem features a royal Crown — signifying that Canada is a constitutional monarchy — along with nine maple leaves surrounded by a laurel, and undergirded by the court’s longtime motto “Justice and Truth” (in Latin).

The flag goes up each time the court is in session to hear an appeal (previously the court raised the Canadian flag). “These new emblems express the values of our institution: justice, independence, integrity, transparency and bilingualism,” Chief Justice Wagner told the public.

The Supreme Court’s Year in Review provides a brief description of “notable decisions” that year as well as a statistical profile of its work in 2021.

The numbers disclosed by the court reveal that 55 per cent of the cases heard by the court in 2021 involved criminal law (most were as-of-right appeals); 24 per cent were “public” law (including constitutional cases, and administrative law appeals involving, for example, tax, human rights or labour relations); and 21 per cent were cases involving disputes between individuals (for example in the areas of negligence, family law and contracts).

Of the 59 decisions rendered in 2021, 39 per cent were in criminal cases, 34 per cent were in public law cases and 27 per cent were in private law cases.

Close to half of the court’s hearings in 2021 were devoted to as-of-right cases. Of the 58 appeals heard in 2021, 26 were by-right appeals and 32 were by leave.

The nine judges’ decisions revealed more disagreement than agreement — with just 46 per cent of judgments featuring unanimous agreement on the results (down from the 49-per-cent unanimity rate the year before.)

Because of hearing delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, the average time-lapse between the court granting leave and argument on an appeal was 8.2 months — down from 8.6 months in 2020 (the first year of the pandemic), but up considerably from 6.3 months the year before.

At the same time, the court was speedy in deciding leave applications in 2021 — taking an average of 2.8 months, the fastest time in a decade. As occurred in 2020, the court received fewer leave applications in 2021, reflecting pandemic slowdowns in the lower courts: 473 leave applications, down from the average of 538 in the eight years preceding the pandemic.

In 2021, the court also took, on average, only about four months to render its decisions — its second-fastest turnaround in 10 years (however, this average turnaround time includes decisions rendered immediately from the bench, which made up a substantial portion of the court’s total output.)

The Supreme Court heard appeals on 58 days in 2021, up from 35 days in 2020.

Overall, the entire Supreme Court appeal process, starting from the date of filing a leave application through to judgment, took 15.2 months, on average, reduced more than two months from 17.4 months in 2020.

The 2021 Year in Review indicates that the Supreme Court decided 59 cases, of which 22 were bench judgments, and 37 were reserved decisions.

Cristin Schmitz at


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