Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Master Definition:

A partly-empowered superior-level court judge, used mostly for interlocutory and procedural civil hearings.

A partly-empowered superior-level court judge, used mostly for less formal civil (not criminal) hearings.

In Attorney General for Ontario v. Victoria Medical Building Ltd., Justice Judson of Canada's Supreme Court wrote:

"While it is true that the Master's jurisdiction is very varied in character, it is, I think, largely concerned with preliminary matters and proceedings in an action, necessary to enable the case to be heard, and with matters that are referred to that office under a judge's order. There is no inherent jurisdiction in the office as there is in the office of a Superior Court judge....

"(E)verything the Master does must be authorized by the rules of practice, the judicature act or some other statute. This does not mean, however, that the Legislature can assign any and all work to him. Section 96 operates as a limiting factor. If this were not so, there would be nothing to prevent the withdrawal of any judicial function from a s.96 appointee and its assignment to the Master."

In Canada some, but not all provinces sustain this lower echelon of superior level judges to hear interlocutory or interim applications, settle bills of costs, act as referees, handle foreclosures and bankruptcy matters and deal with uncontested or purely procedural matters.

Generally, although there are exceptions, masters do not hear oral evidence. It is of the nature of the matters presented before a master that the evidence is in affidavit form.

Masters are typically not appointed by the Federal government which is why their jurisdiction is limited. However, in the day-to-day operation of courthouses in jurisdictions that employ masters, they are invaluable to the course and progress of civil litigation.

Matters typically brought before a master in those Canadian jurisdictions that have them:

Masters do not have inherent jurisdiction and must find their authority to act in a statute. Of course, this can be somewhat of a moot point where the enabling statute gives jurisdiction described in wide terms usually drafted as follows: "In regard to all matters brought or proposed to be brought in the Court, a master in chambers has the same power and may exercise the same jurisdiction as a judge sitting in chambers except ...."

In British Columbia, the statute is a model of bluntness:

"§11.(6) A master has, subject to the limitations of section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, the same jurisdiction under any enactment or the Rules of Court, as a judge in chambers unless, in respect of any matter, the Chief Justice has given a direction that a master shall not exercise that jurisdiction."

In Polson, Justice Harvey distinguished a master from a judge per se, the latter term generally reserved for superior-level judges appointed by the federal government:

"The Master has no jurisdiction in trials or in appeals and all of his acts are subject to review by a judge. His office is essentially that of an officer preparing litigation for its legitimate purpose, viz. a trial of the rights of the parties which is exclusively reserved for the judges to whom it essentially belongs. His duties, therefore, while largely judicial in their character, do not constitute him a judge since from them are reserved the essential duties of a judge."

The hierarchy between a master and a federally-appointed judge of the court is apparent in the following restrictions:

  • A master cannot vary or set aside a judge's order;
  • A master cannot determine damages in a contract or tort action; and
  • A master cannot make a final determination on a family matter or, in any event, make a divorce order.


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