Lists of landmark court decisions

Landmark court decisions, in present-day common law legal systems, establish precedents that determine a significant new legal principle or concept, or otherwise substantially affect the interpretation of existing law. "Leading case" is commonly used in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth jurisdictions instead of "landmark case" as used in the United States.[1][2]

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".[3]

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."[4] 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

Decisions in leading cases 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

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).

Decisions in leading cases in Canada 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 RSupreme Court[1963] SCR 651Canadian Bill of RightsEstablishes 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.
Reference Re Anti-Inflation ActSupreme Court[1976] 2 SCR 373Use 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.
Patriation ReferenceSupreme Court[1981] 1 SCR 753Constitutional conventionsEstablishes that constitutional conventions are not legally binding.
Quebec (AG) v Blaikie (No 1)Supreme Court[1979] 2 SCR 1016Status of English and 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.
R v SparrowSupreme Court[1990] 1 SCR 1075Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights)Establishes that aboriginal rights that pre-exist the Constitution Act, 1982 cannot be infringed without justification..
Delgamuukw v British ColumbiaSupreme Court[1997] 3 SCR 1010Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights)
R v MarshallSupreme Court[1999] 3 SCR 456Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights)Establishes that aboriginal treaty rights are subject to Canadian law, but not to provincial licensing systems.R v Marshall (No 1)R v Marshall (No 2)
Tsilhqot'in Nation v British ColumbiaSupreme Court2014 SCC 44Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights)Established land title for the Tsilhqot'in First Nation.
Reference Re BC Motor Vehicle ActSupreme Court[1985] 2 SCR 486Charter 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.
R v MorgentalerSupreme Court[1988] 1 SCR 30Charter 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".
Gosselin v Quebec (AG)Supreme Court2002 SCC 84Charter 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.
Andrews v Law Society of British ColumbiaSupreme Court[1989] 1 SCR 143Charter of Rights, section 15 (Equality rights)Establishes the "Andrews test" for determining whether Charter-protected equality rights have been violated.
Hunter v Southam IncSupreme Court[1984] 2 SCR 145Charter of Rights, section 8 (Legal rights)Establishes that the Charter ought to be interpreted purposively.
R v FeeneySupreme Court[1997] 2 SCR 13Constitution Act, 1982, section 8 (Procedural rights)Establishes that the police cannot enter a home without a search warrant.
Egan v CanadaSupreme Court[1995] 2 SCR 513Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights)Establishes that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited under section 15(1).
Law v Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration)Supreme Court[1999] 1 SCR 497Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights) Establishes the "Law test" for identifying Charter-prohibited discrimination.
Canada (AG) v HislopSupreme Court2007 SCC 10Charter 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.
Ford v Quebec (AG)Supreme Court[1988] 2 SCR 712Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression)
Irwin Toy Ltd v Quebec (AG)Supreme Court[1989] 1 SCR 927Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression)
R v ZundelSupreme Court[1992] 2 SCR 731Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression)
R v SharpeSupreme Court2001 SCC 2Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression)
Mahe v AlbertaSupreme Court[1990] 1 SCR 342Charter 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.
R v OakesSupreme Court[1986] 1 SCR 103Charter 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.
MeiorinSupreme Court[1999] 3 SCR 3Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights) Establishes the "Meiorin test" to be used in applying human rights legislation..
Auton (Guardian ad litem of) v British Columbia (AG)Supreme Court2004 SCC 78Charter of Rights, section 15 (Equality rights) Establishes that section 15 of the Charter does not create a positive right to receive government services.

Landmark decisions in India

The Supreme Court of India, which is the highest judicial body in India, has decided many leading cases of Constitutional jurisprudence, establishing Constitution Benches for hearing the same. Given below are a list of some leading cases:

  1. S.P. Gupta v. Union of India & Anr. (Transfer Case (civil) 19 of 1981; 1982 2 SCR 365)
  2. Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association & Anr. v. Union of India (W.P. (C) 1303 of 1987)
  3. In re Special reference 1 of 1998

Landmark decisions in New Zealand

Decisions in leading cases in New Zealand were made by the Court of Appeal of New Zealand before the establishment of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, although historically some have been made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.

Landmark decisions in the United Kingdom

Decisions in leading cases 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.

Landmark decisions in the United States

Landmark cases in the United States come most frequently (but not exclusively) from the Supreme Court of the United States. United States Courts of Appeals 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

See also


  1. Meaning of leading case in the English Dictionary
  2. A. W. B. Simpson, Leading Cases in the Common Law, Clarendon Press, 1996
  3. Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy, Leading Cases in Canadian Constitutional Law. Toronto: Carswell, 1914, p. v.
  4. 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.
  5. Mabo v Queensland (1989) 166 CLR 186 AustLill