Many people think a Justice of the Peace is someone who performs marriages and that performing marriages is the main work of a justice of the peace. This is an understandable belief because in the United States many Justices of the Peace are, in effect, secular clergy whose main job is to conduct marriages; since much of our television and movies come from America the image of a Justice of the Peace being focussed on marriages has become ingrained in Canadian thinking.
In fact, while a Justice of the Peace in Canada can perform a marriage that is quite unusual and performing marriages is certainly not the major role of a justice of the peace.
The history of justices of the peace is ancient. In 1195, King Richard the Lionheart appointed some of his knights to preserve the peace in unruly areas. They were responsible to the King for ensuring that the law was upheld and were known as "keepers of the peace". By the 1300s the idea of a protector of the peace evolved beyond someone who could keep the peace with a sword and became a more judicial office. So an English law of 1327 had referred to "good and lawful men" to be appointed in every county in the land to "guard the peace"; justice of the peace as a term comes a little later, from 1361, and, amazingly, their role has been more or less the same since then, almost 700 years later. A modern justice of the peace in Rankin Inlet would being doing most of the same things a justice of the peace would be doing in Stratford, England, in say 1400!
Justices of the Peace are major participants in the justice system and act as judicial officers, in effect judges, on many matters of very great importance. For example, a justice of the peace is likely to be the person deciding, if you get arrested and the RCMPolice do not release you right away, whether you will be released on bail or whether you will have to spend your time in jail until your trial. Justices of the Peace decide on whether a search warrant is to issue to search your home or business. Justices of the Peace act as the judge in many of the less serious criminal and regulatory cases and they have some jurisdiction in family law matters. As you can see, a justice of the peace is a very important person.
Justices of the Peace are usually lay people, working and living in the community where they sit; they often carry out these duties on a part-time basis. As lay people living in the community a Justice of the Peace has a good sense of what is going on locally and can make informed decisions about the best way to ensure justice is done in the community.
Although they are similar to judges, justices of the peace are not judges and so they are called by a slightly different name in Court. A judge is called "Your Honour" while a justice of the peace is called "Your Worship". Regardless, both deserve respect in court!
Of the Law Societies of Upper Canada and Nunavut