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 court proceedings often foster. 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.
Who can help you settle a family dispute?
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.
In some parts of B.C. you must meet with a Family Justice Counsellor before obtaining a court date. In other areas you are encouraged to do this to try to avoid having to go to court. If you and the other party agree, a Family Justice Counsellor can help record your agreement as a separation agreement. They may also submit a consent court order to be signed by a judge without your having to attend court.
Get the phone number of your local Family Justice or Justice Access Centre at Clicklaw or from your courthouse.
Private Mediators: Mediate BC maintains a roster of qualified family mediators who charge for their services. Early in 2015 the Legal Services Society and Mediate BC announced a pilot project to provide free mediation services for issues of property division, debt and support to people who cannot afford to pay a mediator. For information on this program, visit your local Legal Aid office, or call the Legal Services Society at: Vancouver 604-408-2172 or Toll free 1-866-577-2525.
Collaborative Separation: In collaborative separation or divorce, you work 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. When an application for guardianship, parenting and support matters is filed under the Family Law Act they are optional. In a judicial case conference you sit around a table with a judge (and possibly lawyers, social workers, and support people, depending on circumstances). The judge tries to help you work out solutions to the issues you don’t agree on.
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 related videos on the Ministry of justice website.
What about settling a Small Claims dispute out of court?
SmallClaimsBC: Try the free, secure, online negotiation service offered by Small Claims BCbefore filing a claim in court. If it doesn’t work, you can still go to court. Consumer Protection BC’s Online Dispute Resolution platform offers a similar service with the option of a mediator for disputes between consumers and participating businesses.
Settlement Conferences: If a claim is filed in Small Claims Court the parties must attend a settlement conference where they (and their lawyers if they have them) meet with a judge to try to resolve their issues without a trial.
And what about criminal matters?
Alternative Measures: In less serious criminal matters, after charges have been laid the Crown prosecutor sometimes agrees to proceed by “alternative measures” under s. 717 of the Criminal Code. You must accept responsibility and be approved to participate in this program. If you 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 seejusticebc.ca - alternative measures.