If you’re dealing with a family law issue, you may end up in Provincial Court (often called Family Court). There are advantages to using this court instead of BC Supreme Court. Learn what’s involved at each stage.
What you should know
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 many, but not all, of the legal issues that affect families. It handles the following issues under the BC [Family Law Act] (https://www.canlii.org/en/bc/laws/stat/sbc-2011-c-25/latest/sbc-2011-c-25.html):
guardianship of a child and parental responsibilities
parenting time and contact with a child
child support and spousal support
Family Court also deals with child protection cases.
Family Court cannot make orders under the federal Divorce Act. It can’t:
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
For these issues, you have to go to the British Columbia Supreme Court. This is the other court in BC that also deals with family law issues.
The BC Supreme Court can deal with all family law issues, including all of the issues Family Court deals with. So why would you want to go to Family Court?
Family Court has some advantages over Supreme Court:
The Family Court forms are easier to understand. They’re written in plain language and include information on when to use them, next steps, and tips for completion.
No court fees are charged in Family Court.
The rules of court are simpler than the rules of the Supreme Court. Plus, the Family Court rules encourage people to try to resolve their issues by agreement earlier on in the court process.
Family Courts have family justice counsellors available. These are specially trained government workers who can help people resolve certain types of family law issues, including through mediation. Their services are free and confidential.
The atmosphere of Family Court is more informal.
Many Family Courts 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.
There are registries at various Provincial Courts throughout BC. How the Family Court process works depends on the registry location and the type of court order you need.
Many Family Court registries have certain requirements you have to meet before you can get a date to appear in front of a judge. We explain these below, under stages in the court process.
But there are exceptions. In certain circumstances, you can fast forward the process. For example:
If you’re experiencing family violence, you can apply for a protection order. This a court order to protect one person from another.
If the other parent wants to move with the children or is refusing to agree to you taking them abroad on a planned holiday, you can apply for an order in a priority parenting matter.
Even after a family law case has been started, you can still try to resolve your issues without going to a hearing before a judge.
You might try negotiating with each other to try to reach an agreement. You could do this with or without the help of lawyers. You could also get help from other family members, elders, or other community members.
You could try mediation. This involves meeting with a neutral person (a mediator) who helps find a solution everyone can agree on. The mediator doesn’t make decisions, but instead helps the parties make decisions for themselves.
You can use a family justice counsellor as a mediator. Their services are free. (At some Provincial Court locations, parties are required to meet with a family justice counsellor as one of the first steps in the court process.) Or you can hire a private mediator.
Or you could try collaborative negotiation. This is also known as “collaborative family law.” It’s a kind of negotiation where each party has their own lawyer and agrees to 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, collaborative negotiation, and arbitration.
If you can work out your issues, you and the other people involved can put your agreement into writing. Or you might want a judge to make a court order that reflects your agreement. This is 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 legal advice. A lawyer can explain:
what the agreement means
what rights and obligations the agreement gives to each party
how the agreement affects other legal options that might otherwise be available
See who can help, below, for options to get legal advice.
Stages in the court process
How you start a matter in Family Court depends on the court registry location and the type of court order you seek.
In the Victoria and Surrey registries, you have to file a notice with the court, and then meet with a family justice counsellor and satisfy certain requirements before you can start a court matter.
In other court registries in the province, you can start a court matter by filing an application with the court. Then (depending on the registry location), you may have to meet with a family justice counsellor or complete a parenting education program, or both, before getting a court date. More on these requirements in the next section about next steps.
In any court registry, if there’s been family violence or you have an urgent parenting issue, you can apply to get into court right away.
To start a Family Court matter, you fill out an application about a family law matter. You make three copies of the application, and file it with the court registry. There is no fee involved. Depending on what kind of orders you’re asking for, other forms and documents may also be required.
You then arrange to have a copy of the filed documents served on the other party in the case. There are strict rules about how to give court documents to the other party.
Depending on the court registry location and the type of court order you seek, you’ll likely have to complete certain steps before you can get a date to appear before a judge.
In early resolution registries in Surrey and Victoria, for example, you have to meet with a family justice counsellor, take a parenting course (if applicable), and complete a session of consensual dispute resolution (if appropriate). Only then can you start a matter in Family Court and get a court date.
In family justice registries in Kelowna, Nanaimo and Vancouver, you start a Family Court matter, meet with a family justice counsellor, and take a parenting education program (if applicable). Then you’ll get a court date.
All other Family Court registries are Parenting Education Program registries. In these registries, you file an application to start a Family Court matter. Then, you complete a parenting education program (unless you can show you’re exempt) before getting a court date.
Unless you have an urgent family matter, the first time you appear before a judge will usually be at a family management conference. This is a 20- to 60-minute meeting with the other party and a judge. The judge will try to help you and the other party reach an agreement. If that’s not possible, the judge will help you get organized for a hearing or a trial.
At a family management conference, a judge can make court orders. If you and the other party agree about your family law issues, the judge will make a consent order. If you can’t agree, the judge may still make important interim (temporary) orders that can last at least until you have a hearing. Because of this, you must be prepared to tell the judge what orders you want and why. You can provide spoken and affidavit evidence to support your position.
If issues aren’t resolved at the family management conference, the judge can decide on the next steps in your case. This can include participating in mediation, attending a family settlement conference (an informal meeting with a judge to try to resolve the dispute), or setting a hearing date.
If a hearing is needed, the judge can make case management orders about timing, witnesses, documents, and other evidence to make sure the trial is conducted efficiently.
If you can’t settle your issues and have to go to a trial, you’ll have a hearing before a judge.
In your community, the 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’s one 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. They’ll explain why they think the judge should decide in their favor. The judge will then make an order resolving the issues.
You don’t have to have a lawyer when you go to court. Over a third of people bringing a case in Family Court represent themselves. The rules in Family Court are simpler than in Supreme Court and the atmosphere is more informal.
Who can help
To make an appointment with a family justice counsellor, contact the nearest Family Justice Centre by calling Service BC.
Call 1-800-663-7867 (toll-free)
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 lawyers who offer these services.
For options for legal advice, see our information on free and low-cost legal help. It explains options such as legal aid, pro bono services, legal clinics, and advocates.
The BC Provincial Court website provides information about family law, rules, and court processes as well as links to resources.
Legal Aid BC’s Family Law in BC website has self-help guides that include step-by-step instructions and blank forms you’ll need for going to Provincial (Family) Court.