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Provincial (Family) Court

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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.

"My spouse and I ended our 16-year relationship. After separating, we couldn’t reach an agreement about spousal support and who our three children should live with. So I started a court action in the Family Court near me. I didn’t have to pay court filing fees, and I found the process easier to follow than I expected. At our family case conference, we ended up with a consent order that resolved our family law issues."

– Annika, Maple Ridge

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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:

  • 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 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 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 Provincial 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 certain types of family law issues, including through mediation. Their services are free and confidential.
  • 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.

Family Court is for everyone who has family law issues, including:

  • couples who are married
  • couples who aren’t married
  • people who have had a child together
  • anyone (such as a relative) who has an interest in a child

A case in Family Court starts with paperwork. You fill out and file an application with the court. Depending on what kind of orders you’re asking for, other forms and documents may also be required.

Tip

The Victoria Provincial (Family) Court registry has its own court process. The Victoria process highlights early resolution. If you’re starting a family law case in Victoria, you can find more information on the BC government’s website.

You make three copies of the documents. These then have to be filed at a Family Court registry. There’s no fee for filing the documents.

You then serve a copy of the filed documents on the other person in the case. You and the other person are called the “parties” to the case. There are strict rules about how to give court documents to the other party.

There are registries at various Provincial Courts throughout BC. Different registries 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 about the care and support of children. Their services include mediation and counselling.

Other court registries require parties to take a Parenting After Separation course before they can see a judge. This free course helps parents understand 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 court hearing. This is an informal meeting with a judge. At the meeting, the parties talk about the issues each party has raised in the case, see what can be agreed to, and talk about how the claims will be resolved going forward.

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 judge.

The parties might try negotiating with each other to try to reach an agreement. They could do this with or without the help of 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 find a solution everyone can agree on. The mediator doesn’t make decisions, but instead 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. 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 and collaborative practice.

If the parties can work out their issues, they can put their agreement into writing. Or they might want a judge to make a court order that reflects their 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 the “Who can help” section below for options to get legal advice.

If the parties can’t settle their issues and have to go to a trial, they’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.

Common questions

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 and forms in Family Court are simpler than in Supreme Court and the atmosphere is more informal.

Tip

If you’re planning to represent yourself in Family Court, consider getting legal advice about your case 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 wait time to get an appointment to see a family justice counsellor or to take the Parenting After Separation course. But in certain circumstances, different procedures apply. If you’re experiencing family violence, tell the court clerk. They 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.

Who can help

To make an appointment with a family justice counsellor, contact the nearest Family Justice Centre by calling Service BC.

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.

Legal Aid BC’s Family Law website has self-help guides that include step-by-step instructions and blank forms you’ll need for going to Provincial (Family) Court.

The wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law explains how to start a family law action in the Family Court.

The Justice Education Society’s HowToSeparate website provides online courses one how to work out family problems and instructions for going to court.

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed in March 2020
  • Time to read: 8 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Samantha Rapoport, Brown Henderson Melbye

Samantha Rapoport, Brown Henderson Melbye

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This information from People’s Law School explains in a general way the law that applies in British Columbia, Canada. The information is not intended as legal advice. See our disclaimer.

Related

On Dial-A-Law

Dial-A-Law has more information on Resolving family disputes in the section on Families + Children.