If you’re dealing with a family law issue, you may end up in Family Court. (There are advantages to this court over Supreme Court.) Learn what’s involved at each stage.
Understand the legal framework
Family Court is a division of the British Columbia Provincial Court. Other divisions of the Provincial Court deal with criminal, traffic, and small claims cases.
Family Court deals with most legal issues that impact families, but not all of them. It deals with these issues under the BC Family Law Act:
- guardianship of a child and parental responsibilities
- parenting time and contact with a child
- child support and spousal support
- protection orders
Family Court also deals with child protection cases.
Family Court cannot:
- grant a divorce
- divide property or debts, or make orders about family property
- change an order that was made under the Divorce Act
- make adoption orders
To deal with these issues, you have to go to British Columbia Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court can deal with all family law issues, including all of the issues the Provincial Court deals with.
Given that, why would you want to go to Family Court?
Family Court has some advantages over Supreme Court:
- The court forms are easier to fill out than Supreme Court forms.
- No court fees are charged.
- The rules of court are simpler than the rules of the Supreme Court.
- The atmosphere of Family Court is more informal.
- Family Courts have family justice counsellors available. These are specially trained government workers who can help people resolve some family law issues, including through mediation. Their services are free.
- Family Courts sometimes have family duty counsel available. These are lawyers who provide free legal advice to help people with low incomes deal with their family law problems.
Family Court is available to everyone who has family law issues, including couples who are married, couples who aren’t married, people who have had a child together, and anyone (such as a relative) who has an interest in a child.
A case is started in Family Court by filing an application with the court. Depending on what kind of orders are being sought, other documents may also be required.
The applicant makes three copies of the documents, and files the documents at a Family Court registry. There’s no fee for filing the documents.
The applicant then serves a copy of the filed documents on the other party. There are strict rules about how to give court documents to the other party.
Different registries of the Family Court have different rules about what happens next. Some registries require that parties meet with a family justice counsellor before they can see a judge. Family justice counsellors can help families resolve issues relating to the care and support of children, including through providing mediation.
Other registries require parties to take a “Parenting After Separation” course before they can see a judge. This free course helps parents with how to make decisions in the best interests of their child. It’s a good idea to take the course whether the court requires it or not.
The parties may be asked to attend a family case conference to see if the dispute can be resolved without a hearing. This is an informal meeting with a judge to talk about the claims each party has made, see what can be agreed to, and talk about how the claims will be resolved. Family law cases are often resolved at these conferences. When the parties can agree, the judge will make a consent order at the conference.
Once a family law case has been started, the parties can try to resolve their issues without going to a hearing before a Family Court judge.
The parties might try negotiating with each other. This involves discussing the issues to try to reach an agreement. They could negotiate with the help of lawyers or without lawyers. They could also get help from other family members, elders or other community members.
The parties could try mediation. This involves meeting with a neutral person (a mediator), who helps them find a solution they agree on. The mediator doesn’t make decisions, but rather helps the parties make decisions for themselves. Parties can use a family justice counsellor as their mediator (their services are free) or they can hire a private mediator.
Or the parties could try collaborative practice. Also known as “collaborative family law”, this is a kind of negotiation where each party has their own lawyer and agree they will do everything possible to reach a settlement without going to court. The approach emphasizes full disclosure, communication, and a safe and respectful environment to help the parties negotiate a settlement collaboratively.
For more on these approaches, see our information on mediation and collaborative practice (no. 111).
If the parties can work out their issues, their agreement can be recorded in writing. Or it might be recorded in an order the parties agree the judge will make, called a consent order. Most family law cases are settled by an agreement or consent order.
Both parties must sign the written agreement or consent order.
Each party should get independent legal advice from a lawyer before they sign the document. This involves each party meeting with their own lawyer to get advice about what the agreement means, what rights and obligations the agreement gives to each party, and how the agreement affects other legal options that might otherwise be available.
If the parties cannot settle their issues and have to go to a trial, they will have a hearing before a Family Court judge.
In your community, Provincial Court might have a separate courtroom for family law cases, or family law cases might be heard in one of the regular courtrooms on a particular day of the week. Usually there is a day each week or every other week when the court will hear family law cases.
At the hearing, witnesses give oral testimony (they tell the court their side of the case) and present documents or other evidence. Often, the parties themselves are the only witnesses.
After all of the evidence has been given to the judge, each side will make arguments to the judge and explain why the judge should make a particular order. The judge will then make an order resolving the issues.
There is no rule that people have a lawyer when they are going to court. The rules and forms in Family Court are simpler than in Supreme Court, and the atmosphere is more informal in Family Court. If you are planning to represent yourself in Family Court, consider getting legal advice beforehand. Or you could explore hiring an “unbundled lawyer” to help coach you or help with part of your case. To find a lawyer who offers unbundled services, see unbundlinglaw.ca.
After a case is started in Family Court, there is a waiting time for an appointment to see a family justice counsellor or take the “Parenting After Separation” course. If you’re experiencing family violence, tell the court clerk. The clerk can explain how the Family Court can make a protection order in an emergency. This is a court order to protect one person from another. For more on this option, see our information on family violence (no. 155).
To make an appointment with a family justice counsellor, contact the nearest Family Justice Centre by calling Service BC.
Telephone: 604-660-2421 in Metro Vancouver or 250-387-6121 in Victoria
Unbundling allows you to hire a lawyer for specific parts of your case or to coach you through the court process. Unbundled Legal Services lists family law lawyers who offer these services.
The Legal Services Society’s Family Law in BC website features guides that include step-by-step instructions and blank forms you’ll need for going to Family Court.
The “Parenting After Separation” course is provided by Justice Education Society of BC and can be done online or in-person.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in October 2018
Time to read: 6 minutes