Lists of landmark court decisions

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Landmark court decisions establish new precedents that establish a significant new legal principle or concept, or otherwise substantially change the interpretation of existing law. In Commonwealth countries, a reported decision is said to be a leading decision when it has come to be generally regarded as settling the law of the question involved. In 1914, Canadian jurist Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy said "a 'leading case' [is] one that settles the law upon some important point."[1]

A leading decision may settle the law in more than one way. It may do so by:

  • distinguishing a new principle that refines a prior principle, thus departing from prior practice without violating the rule of stare decisis;
  • establishing a “test” (that is, a measurable standard that can be applied by courts in future decisions), such as the Oakes test (in Canadian law) or the Bolam test (in English law).
  • Sometimes, with regard to a particular provision of a written constitution, only one court decision has been made. By necessity, until further rulings are made, this ruling is the leading case. For example, in Canada, “[t]he leading case on voting rights and electoral boundary readjustment is Carter. In fact, Carter is the only case of disputed electoral boundaries to have reached the Supreme Court.”[2] The degree to which this kind of leading case can be said to have "settled" the law is less than in situations where many rulings have reaffirmed the same principle.

Landmark decisions in Australia[edit]

Main articles: List of High Court of Australia cases and List of Judicial Committee of the Privy Council cases

Landmark decisions in Australia have usually been made by the High Court of Australia, although historically some have been made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.

Landmark decisions in Canada[edit]

Main articles: List of Supreme Court of Canada cases and List of Judicial Committees of the Privy Council cases

There is no universally agreed-to list of "leading decisions" in Canada.

One indication, however, as to whether a case is widely regarded as being "leading" is its inclusion of the ruling in one or more of the series of compilations prepared over the years by various authors. One of the earlier examples is Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy's Leading Cases in Canadian Constitutional Law, published in 1914. More recently, Peter H. Russell and a changing list of collaborators have published a series of books, including:

  • Leading Constitutional Decisions (first published 1965, with several later editions);
  • Federalism and the Charter: Leading Constitutional Decisions (published in 1989, co-edited by Russell, F.L. Morton and Rainer Knopff);
  • The Court and the Charter: Leading Cases (published in 2008, co-edited by Russell, Morton, Knopff, Thomas Bateman and Janet Hiebert); and
  • The Court and the Constitution: Leading Cases (published in 2008, co-edited by Russell, Morton, Knopff, Bateman and Hiebert).

Landmark decisions in Canada are have usually been made by the Supreme Court of Canada. Prior to the abolition of appeals of Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s, most landmark decisions were made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.

Decision Court Date & citation Subject matter Principle or rule established by the court's decision Full text
Robertson and Rosetanni v. R. Supreme Court [1963] S.C.R. 651 Canadian Bill of Rights Establishes that the Bill of Rights is not concerned with rights in any abstract sense, but rather with the more modest objective of prohibiting restrictions on rights as they existed in Canada at the time the Bill of Rights was enacted. [1]
re Anti-Inflation Act Supreme Court [1976] 2 S.C.R. 373 Use of extraneous material in court decisions. Established that it is acceptable for Canadian courts to examine historical material in addition to the text of the relevant statute. [2]
Patriation Reference Supreme Court [1981] 1 S.C.R. 753 Constitutional conventions Establishes that constitutional conventions are not legally binding. [3]
Quebec v. Blaikie Supreme Court [1979] 2 SCR 1016 Status of English & French in Quebec legislation. Established that all laws and regulations of the province of Quebec, as well as all courts and tribunals, must treat French and English with absolute equality. [4]
R. v. Sparrow Supreme Court [1990] 1 S.C.R. 1075 Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights) Establishes that aboriginal rights that pre-exist the Constitution Act, 1982 cannot be infringed without justification. [5].
Delgamuukw v. British Columbia Supreme Court [1997] 3 S.C.R. 1010 Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights) [6]
R. v. Marshall Supreme Court [1999] 3 S.C.R. 456 Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights) Establishes that aboriginal treaty rights are subject to Canadian law, but not to provincial licencing systems. R v Marshall (No 1)R v Marshall (No 2)
Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act Supreme Court [1985] 2 S.C.R. 486 Charter of Rights, section 7 (Legal rights) Establishes that laws which impose prison sentences for ”absolute liability” offences (i.e. offences for which intent or negligence need not be shown) are invalidated by section 7 of the Charter. [7]
R. v. Morgentaler Supreme Court [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30 Charter of Rights, section 7 (Legal rights), abortion The abortion provision in the Criminal Code violated the right of women, under section 7 of the Charter to “security of the person.” [8]
Gosselin v. Quebec Supreme Court [2002] 4 S.C.R. 429 Charter of Rights, section 7 (Legal rights) Establishes that section 7 does not mandate positive rights to welfare benefits, but that “a positive obligation to sustain life, liberty or security of the person may be made out” under different circumstances than those of the instant case. [9]
Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia Supreme Court [1989] 1 S.C.R. 143 Charter of Rights, section 15 (Equality rights) Establishes the “Andrews test” for determining whether Charter-protected equality rights have been violated. [10]
Hunter v. Southam Supreme Court [1984] 2 S.C.R. 145 Charter of Rights, section 8 (Legal rights) Establishes that the Charter ought to be interpreted purposively. [11]
R. v. Feeney Supreme Court [1997] 2 S.C.R. 13 Constitution Act, 1982, section 8 (Procedural rights) Establishes that the police cannot enter a home without a search warrant. [12]
Egan v. Canada Supreme Court [1995] 2 S.C.R. 513 Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights) Establishes that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited under section 15(1). [13]
Law v. Canada Supreme Court [1999] 1 S.C.R. 497 Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights) Establishes the “Law test” for identifying Charter-prohibited discrimination. [14]
Canada (Attorney General) v. Hislop Supreme Court [2007] 1 S.C.R. 429 Charter of Rights, section 15 (Equality rights) Establishes that Charter-mandated rights come into existence, for purposes of applicability, only from the moment that their existence is determined by the court. Charter rights are not “discovered” in the sense proposed by Blackstone, and therefore are not retroactive. [15]
Ford v. Quebec (A.G.) Supreme Court [1988] 2 S.C.R. 712 Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression) [16]
Irwin Toy Ltd. v. Quebec (A.G.) Supreme Court [1989] 1 S.C.R. 927 Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression) [17]
R. v. Zundel Supreme Court [1992] 2 S.C.R. 731 Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression) [18]
R. v. Sharpe Supreme Court [2001] 1 S.C.R. 45 Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression) [19]
Mahe v. Alberta Supreme Court [1990] 1 S.C.R. 342 Charter of Rights, section 23 (Minority-language education rights) Establishes that section 23 of the Charter is intended to be remedial, and therefore should be given a large and liberal interpretation. [20]
R. v. Oakes Supreme Court [1986] 1 S.C.R. 103 Charter of Rights, section 1 (limits on rights protected elsewhere in the Charter) Establishes the "Oakes test" determining whether laws placing limits on Charter-protected rights are permitted under section 1 of the Charter. [21]
Meiorin case Supreme Court [1999] 3 S.C.R. 3 Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights) Establishes the “Meiorin test” to be used in applying human rights legislation. [22].
Auton v. British Columbia Supreme Court [2004] 3 S.C.R. 657 Charter of Rights, section 15 (Equality rights) Establishes that section 15 of the Charter does not create a positive right to receive government services. [23]



Landmark decisions in the United Kingdom[edit]

Main articles: List of House of Lords cases

Landmark decisions in the United Kingdom have usually been made by the House of Lords, or more recently the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; in Scotland by the Court of Session or High Court of Justiciary; in England and Wales by the Court of Appeal or the High Court of Justice of England and Wales. Some twentieth century examples involved contributions from the late Lord Denning. 'Landmark case' is usually used in England and Wales, instead of 'leading case'.

Landmark decisions in the United States[edit]

Landmark cases in the United States come most frequently (but not exclusively) from the United States Supreme Court. United States Courts of Appeal may also make such decisions, particularly if the Supreme Court chooses not to review the case, or adopts the holding of the court below. Although many cases from state supreme courts are significant in developing the law of that state, only a few are so revolutionary that they announce standards that many other state courts then choose to follow.

International courts[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy, Leading Cases in Canadian Constitutional Law. Toronto: Carswell, 1914, p. v.
  2. ^ Michael Pal and Sujit Choudry, “Is Every Ballot Equal? Visible Minority Vote Dilution in Canada”, IRPP Choices vol. 13, no. 1 (January 2007), p. 14.

External links[edit]