Family Court 101

Next season, one of our episodes will be on the theme of “Family Court 101” and will discuss the basics of Family Court and its court processes. The following is an introduction to the topic.

What is Family Court?

For many Canadians, the court system can seem complex and inaccessible. For those who are also dealing with the emotional strain accompanying family legal issues, the task of navigating Family Court can seem particularly daunting.

A look at the larger court structure can help break down what Family Court is and how it works. In Canada, there are two courts which deal with family legal issues: provincial courts (“Family Court”) and Supreme Courts. Family Courts are simply branches of the provincial courts that deal with certain family law issues. It is important to note that while there is some overlap in what issues the two different courts can address, there are also jurisdictional requirements that state that certain issues are to be addressed in a particular court. When considering what court can address a particular family law issue, it is important to keep these differences in mind.

Family Court Jurisdiction: What Issues Can be Addressed in Family Court?

Family Court can address issues related to:

  • child custody and guardianship,
  • access to children,
  • parental, spousal, and child support,
  • child protection orders and
  • personal protection orders.

Family Court cannot deal with cases involving:

  • divorce,
  • adoptions, or
  •  the division of family property.

The last three must be addressed in Supreme Court as they fall under the purview of federal laws. In B.C., Family Court’s jurisdiction is governed by the Family Relations Act, the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act, the Child, Family and Community Service Act, and the Adult Guardianship Act. If you wish to obtain a divorce, have assets divided or make an adoption order you cannot address these in Family Court.

The Application Process

The application process for Family Court varies depending on what the particular family law issue is. Some carry certain pre-court requirements that applicants attend programming such as Parenting After Separation courses or meet with a Family Justice Counsellor to explore alternative dispute resolution options. The family law clerk at any provincial courthouse can help applicants understand the requirements for their particular issue and what steps they will need to take to apply to the court.  If the situation is such that one of the parties or the parties’ children are in danger, such as in domestic violence and abuse cases, personal protection orders may be obtained to protect individuals during the legal process.

Basics of the Family Court Process

There are two ways in which Family Court may resolve legal disputes. First, a settlement of the parties’ dispute through negotiation or mediation may resolve the dispute before it goes to court. Negotiation is a bargaining process where parties attempt to reach an agreement regarding the dispute with or without lawyers. In mediation, a trained and neutral third-party meets with the parties and tries to help them reach a settlement. If negotiation or mediation processes are successful, the settlement can be put into writing and will confer legal obligations upon the parties. This is called a consent order.

In some cases, judges may require that the parties attend a pre-trial “Family Case Conference” over which the judge will preside. These conferences are private, informal meetings where the judge can ascertain what issues are disputed, mediate these disputes, try to assist the parties to reach an agreement and determine what other alternatives to a trial might be feasible. If an agreement can be reached, the judge can make a consent order during the conference.

If alternative dispute resolution methods fail or are not feasible, the parties will go to trial before a Family Court judge who will weigh the evidence and both parties’ arguments to make an ultimate order regarding the dispute. Witnesses may be called by both sides to support their arguments, but in some cases the only witnesses are the parties to the dispute themselves. Parties may self-represent in Family Court and do not require lawyers.

After trial, final decisions in Family Court may be appealed to the Supreme Court. Decisions from the Supreme Court can likewise be appealed to the Court of Appeal. This is an expensive process which may outweigh the benefits from a positive ruling.

Accessibility and Self-Representation in Family Court

Certain structural aspects of Family Court make it more accessible to lay litigants. The court rules are written in plain language that is easy to understand, making it much easier to self-represent in Family Court than in Supreme Court or a Court of Appeal. The court forms are also written in plain language, allowing applicants without legal training or counsel to fill them out themselves. Family Court also does not charge litigants court fees, making it considerably less expensive than pursuing a claim in Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal. Generally speaking, Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal have much more formal and structured court processes than Family Court. They carry more complex rules governing court processes and adhere to them more strictly.

Family Court Today

The number of cases initiated in Family Court has been on the rise since 1995, and the Court’s emphasis has shifted to alternative dispute resolution and informational programming in an attempt to alleviate some of the resultant pressure. Today, efforts are generally made to resolve the family law dispute before it goes to trial before a judge. Despite this, the number of Family Court cases remains on an upward trend and the consequent overburdening of the court system has led to criticisms that taking claims to Family Court is an arduous and slow process.


About Shari Willis

Shari Willis is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Victoria Law School. She completed her B.A. at Simon Fraser University in 2010 with a major in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and an extended minor in English. Shari formerly worked as a support worker and was active in campaigns and initiatives dedicated to ending violence against women. The views in this blog are not necessarily representative of AdviceScene and do not constitute legal advice.

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