There are many different kinds of libraries that support and provide access to our Canadian legal system, including courthouse libraries, legislative libraries, public libraries and more.
Libraries are essential to sustaining democracy and accessing justice. They retain and preserve official documents, provide access to information and endorse transparency. Some libraries offer public access while others only allow access to certain users. But they all offer information online to Canadians.
Our legal system is composed of three branches of power:
- judicial power – the system of courts and tribunals
- legislative power – the federal Parliament and provincial and territorial Legislatures
- executive power – the Prime Minister, Premiers, and cabinets
This division of powers is the basis of our Canadian legal system. Did you know there are also libraries for these branches?
Judicial and courthouse libraries: Alberta Law Libraries and Supreme Court of Canada Library
The first law libraries in Alberta came to be before the province existed. The Law Society of the Northwest Territories – which covered the land that is now Alberta, Saskatchewan, and much of Manitoba – passed a Legal Profession Ordinance in 1889. Among other things, this law empowered lawyers to spend money to create law libraries. Housed in the courthouses of the early judicial districts, these libraries supported the judicial process. The new Law Society of Alberta took control of the law libraries when Alberta became a province in 1905.
At first, only members of the legal profession could access the law libraries in Alberta. An important step in democracy came in 1973 when the public was granted access to services in person or remotely. Since then, Alberta Law Libraries has served the legal community (judges, lawyers and Crown prosecutors), as well as the public.
Alberta Law Libraries offers public access to print materials in ten locations. Our collection includes federal and provincial legislation, as well as historic and current case law (judicial decisions) from all provinces and many tribunals. In addition, we have many books that explore and explain the legal system and its many parts.
We also offer free remote access to a collection of eResources, which include online databases and books. Offering access to these expensive resources to all Albertans creates an equal opportunity for both the legal community and the public. Research support and instructional sessions are available to Alberta residents to make sure they find the right legal resources for their needs. Check our Services to the Public to see how Alberta Law Libraries can help you understand and access the Canadian legal system.
The Supreme Court of Canada Library serves the Supreme Court of Canada, which hears appeals from appeal courts across the country. The Supreme Court Library opened officially when space was available after the Court first expanded in 1892. The library assists the Supreme Court of Canada in deciding questions of national importance by providing information and research. It is open to those appearing before the Supreme Court of Canada and the Federal Court of Appeal, to the Canadian judiciary, to members of law societies across Canada, and to others by permission. Public access to the collection, including some electronic resources, is available through the Library catalogue.
Legislative and executive libraries: Legislature Library of Alberta and Library of Parliament
The legislative branch of government makes the laws in Canada. Our elected representatives (Members of Parliament or Members of the Legislative Assembly) present, discuss, amend, pass or discard new laws (called bills). Both the Parliament in Ottawa as well as the Legislature in Alberta have their own libraries.
The Legislature Library of Alberta was established in 1906 as a repository of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. To this day, it continues to provide Members of the Legislative Assembly with access to legal information and research services. Staff also provide some help to the public. Visit the Assembly Dashboard to find more information about the Assembly and bills in Alberta.
The Library of Parliament traces its roots to Upper and Lower Canada’s Legislative libraries, which were created in 1791 and 1792 and unified in 1841. The current library opened in Ottawa in 1876. The library houses historical and current parliamentary materials and provides research help to parliamentarians. It also responds to general queries from the public about the role, history, and work of Parliament, provides access to documents such as sessional papers, and directs Canadians to parliamentary offices and resources. The Library of Parliament, working with the Senate and the House of Commons, provides access to all Canadians to federal bills through LEGISinfo.
Other libraries also provide access to information and materials about Canada’s legal system.
University law libraries are usually open to the public and offer in-depth legal information on their websites. Examples are the University of Alberta Law Library Page and the University of Calgary Beginning your Canadian Legal Research.
Public libraries collect materials on the most common legal issues. Unlike most of the law libraries described above, public libraries loan print materials to all users.
Importance of libraries
Courthouse, legislative, academic, and public libraries support and democratize our Canadian legal system. Libraries strive to facilitate education, understanding, dissemination and access to legal materials. In doing so, they fulfill a crucial role in our path toward fair and universal access to justice.
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DISCLAIMER The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.