People conducting family court trials without a lawyer face big challenges – not only are the legal procedures unfamiliar and intimidating, but the issues are vital and the people involved often feel very emotional. Being well-prepared can help you feel more confident and calm. Here are some steps that can help you to prepare to present your case effectively in family court.
1. Talk to a lawyer. First find out if you can get a lawyer to represent you at your trial. If you can’t afford that, talk to a Duty Counsel, a lawyer provided by BC’s Legal Services Society to attend Provincial Courts on family remand days and provide legal advice. Find out if you’re eligible for Legal Aid. If not, perhaps you can afford to hire a lawyer to do certain tasks for you (called unbundled services).
Even if you won’t have a lawyer with you in court you can speak to a lawyer to get advice on preparing and presenting your case. Find links to organizations that can help you get legal advice on the Clicklaw HelpMap.
2. When you appear in court to set dates for trial, if the time estimate for your trial is one day or longer, it is helpful to ask that a Pre-Trial Conference be set before the trial. At a Pre-Trial Conference a judge can make sure that both parties have prepared updated financial statements, exchanged documents, and taken other steps that will help the trial proceed smoothly and finish within the allotted time.
3. Think about what court orders you would like the judge to make. See samples of the kinds of court orders that can be made under the BC Family Law Act. List the issues that you and the other party disagree about.
4. Decide what evidence is relevant to those issues. Evidence can be the testimony that witnesses give in the witness box after being sworn or affirming to tell the truth (what they say). It can also be things written on paper, photographs, or objects. (See Guide to Preparing for a Family Court Trial in Provincial Court (“Guide”) page 6.)
If there are financial issues, you will have to file and exchange financial statements before the trial. (See Guide, page 13 for child support, page 17 for spousal support.) and Preparing Financial Documents for Family Court.
5. Gather any evidence you want to show the judge, send a copy to the other party, and bring the original (if possible) and 3 copies to court on the day of your trial. If you must provide email or text chains, mark the portions you say are relevant. The judge doesn’t have the time to read through pages and pages of your electronic communications. If you want to present photographs, have five copies printed – send one to the other party, and bring four copies to the trial - for you, the other party, the judge, and the exhibit kept in the court registry.
6. Prepare to testify about things that are relevant to the issues you’ve listed. (See Guide, page 6) for lists of facts that may be relevant to various family court issues. Make notes about the facts you want to cover in your testimony, through other witnesses, or with documents, photographs or other evidence. When you testify, telling your story in the order that events happened makes it easy for the judge to follow.
7. Prepare a list of questions for any witnesses you want to present. If you wish the judge to hear from witnesses other than yourself during the trial:
8. Prepare a brief opening statement, simply stating what you want the judge to order and whether you have witnesses other than yourself present to testify.
9. Prepare to sum up your case. After all the evidence is presented you will have a chance to explain briefly what you want the judge to order and why the evidence supports you. It can be helpful to hand a point form summary of your closing submission to the other party and to the Court Clerk for the judge when you make your closing submission.
10. Take paper and a pen to court so you can take notes during the trial. You may not use an electronic device to record, receive or transmit in the courtroom. If you wish to use one for note-taking you must ask the judge for permission. You should mute or turn off your cell phone. See The BC Courts’ policy on the use of electronic devices.
11. Or ask someone you trust to act as your Support Person during your trial. The Provincial Court has Guidelines that allow people without lawyers to have a Support Person sit beside them to provide emotional support, take notes, and organize documents, as long as their presence is not disruptive or unfair to the other party. Be sure to read the Guidelines and get more information here.
12. A note about legal research – family law changes from country to country and even, on some subjects, from province to province in Canada. The BC Provincial Court must apply the BC Family Law Act and Family Maintenance Enforcement Act. Be careful about relying on information from other provinces and countries.
For more information, see the Legal Service Society’s How to prepare for (a family law) trial in Provincial Court.