People are often more satisfied with outcomes they agree on than with decisions imposed by a third party, even when the third party is a judge. Where people involved in a family or civil law dispute have equal power, B.C. laws encourage them to try to reach an agreement rather than proceed to trial. This not only maintains people’s control over decision making but avoids the escalation of hostility that often accompanies court proceedings. Opportunities for resolving disputes outside court (sometimes called “alternate dispute resolution” or “ADR”) are built into the Provincial Court’s family and Small Claims rules.
Family Dispute Resolution
Family Justice Counsellors
Family Justice Counsellors provide free family mediation services at Family Justice Centres and Justice Access Centres throughout B.C. They help separated people of modest means agree on issues of guardianship, parenting arrangements, contact, and child and spousal support. When people agree, a Family Justice Counsellor can help record their agreement as a separation agreement or consent court order, including consent to change an existing court order.
In some areas people are required to meet with a Family Justice Counsellor before obtaining a date to appear in court. In other areas they are encouraged to do this to try to avoid having to go to court. When people agree, a Family Justice Counsellor may submit a consent court order to be signed by a judge without their having to attend court.
A judge may also order a Family Justice Counsellor to prepare a report on issues related to guardianship and parenting arrangements, or to interview children to find out their views. See s. 211 of the B.C. Family Law Act.
Mediate BC maintains a roster of qualified family mediators who charge for their services. Private mediators can mediate issues outside the Family Justice Counsellors’ mandate, and may conduct longer mediations. They have experience mediating different types of disputes and offer various styles of mediation.
In collaborative separation or divorce, a couple works with lawyers and financial and/or mental health professionals as needed to resolve both the legal and emotional consequences of separation out of court. Each spouse has a lawyer trained in mediation and collaborative practice to support them and advocate for them throughout negotiations.
The B.C. Collaborative Roster Society maintains a roster of qualified legal, financial and mental health collaborative professionals.
Judicial Case Conferences
At certain stages of child protection matters, case conferences with a judge are required. In Family Law Act matters they are optional. In a judicial case conference people sit around a table with a judge (and possibly lawyers, social workers, and support people, depending on circumstances). The judge tries to help them work out solutions to the issues that bring them to court.
Child Protection Mediation
Mediation is also available from a trained, impartial mediator in child protection matters. Parents, social workers, lawyers, support people and family members meet to talk about the best plan for a child’s safety. See Child Protection Mediation and find videos on the Ministry of justice website.
Dispute Resolution in Small Claims Matters
Small Claims BC offers live phone help, online chat and legal information by email, and a free, secure, online negotiation service that can be used before a claim is filed in court. If you try it and it doesn’t work, you can still go to the Civil Resolution Tribunal or to court, depending on the dollar value of the dispute. Consumer Protection BC’s Online Dispute Resolution platform offers a similar service with the option of a mediator for disputes between consumers and participating debt collection agencies.
The Civil Resolution Tribunal’s Solution Explorer also provides free legal information and tools to resolve Small Claims disputes of any value. If you don’t resolve your dispute there, you can pursue a claim for up to $5000 in the Civil Resolution Tribunal, and one involving $5001 to $35,000 in the Provincial Court’s Small Claims Court.
People’s first court appearance in Small Claims Court will generally be for a judicial settlement conference where they (and their lawyers if they have them) meet with a judge to try to resolve their issues without a trial. For claims over $10,000 you may also use a Notice to Mediate to initiate mediation using a private mediator. See Small Claims Rules section 7.3 for information on that procedure.
Alternative Measures in Criminal Matters
In criminal matters, after charges have been laid the Crown prosecutor sometimes agrees to proceed by “alternative measures” under s. 717 of the Criminal Code. An accused person must accept responsibility and be approved to participate in this program. If they fulfill all the terms of an alternative measures agreement, which often includes performance of community work service, the prosecutor will “stay” (not proceed with) the charges in court.
For more information on alternative measures in criminal and Youth Court matters see justicebc.ca - alternative measures.