What can I expect at a Family Case Conference?

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Note: Since May 2020, conferences in family and small claims matters are being conducted by telephone, audio- or video-conference. See Virtual conferences and hearings (by phone or video) for more information.

You’ve filed an application in BC Provincial Court, asking for an order under the Family Law Act, or you’ve filed a reply to an application. Then you went to court for a First Appearance and the judge directed that you come back for a Family Case Conference on a future date. What happens at a Case Conference? How should you prepare?

In BC Provincial Court, when people file a Family Law Act application or a reply to an application, in most cases the first step in the court process is to meet with a judge to discuss the dispute.

In Kelowna, Nanaimo, Surrey and Vancouver (Robson Square), you must meet with a Family Justice Counsellor before you have a Case Conference.

In addition, in the following court locations, you must also attend the Parenting After Separation Course before you have a Case Conference:

Campbell River
New Westminster
North Vancouver
Port Coquitlam
Prince George
Vancouver (Robson Square)

If you are not able to attend a course in person, you can take the Parenting After Separation course online at www.familieschange.ca

Even if you’re not required to do it, attending this parenting course will give you essential information for helping your children through a parental separation, and meeting with a Family Justice Counsellor can help resolve at least some of the issues you’re facing, so both steps are recommended. Find out more about the Parenting After Separation Course and mediation with a Family Justice Counsellor

Who must attend a Family Case Conference?
Each party to the action must attend – that’s everyone named as an applicant or respondent or third party on the application and reply forms. If any party has hired a lawyer, the lawyer must attend as well. If any party wishes to have someone else attend, they must have the judge’s permission.

It is not appropriate for a party’s witnesses to attend the case conference, since private matters will be discussed, and hearing what’s said might influence their testimony if there is a trial later on.

What is likely to happen at a Family Case Conference?
The parties will meet with a Provincial Court judge, sitting around a table in a private conference room. The judge will likely be dressed in business clothes rather than the robes they wear in court.

The judge will explore what the dispute is about and whether there is any common ground between the parties. In Family Court cases this can include discussions about the needs of the children, how to meet those needs with parenting plans, and how best to divide parenting responsibilities. Often this discussion can help parents reach an agreement.

Usually, each party is given a chance to talk about their issues. The judge may ask questions to clarify things, or if it is appropriate, permit the other party or their lawyer to ask questions.

Sometimes, the judge will comment on the strengths or weaknesses of each party’s case and might share their perspective of the case with the parties. In some cases, this may help to settle disputes.

A Provincial Court conference room

What if you reach an agreement?
The terms of any agreement will be recorded in writing in a Family Case Conference Record. This Conference Record will form part of the court file. It will have the same effect as a Court Order.

What if you don’t agree?
If it seems that the parties are unlikely to agree on a way to resolve the dispute, the judge may direct that a trial date be scheduled to decide one or more issues. The judge may also begin to discuss matters related to a trial.

• They will likely ask how many witnesses each party is planning to bring to court for the trial. Knowing this helps the judge estimate the amount of court time needed. If the time estimate is one day or longer, you may be required to return to court for a Trial Preparation Conference to ensure you are ready for a trial before you are given a trial date. If your trial will be shorter, you may be given a trial date before leaving the courthouse, or you may receive a notice of your trial date in the mail.
• The judge can make orders for the parties to exchange copies of documents or other evidence and can make other procedural orders to make the trial work fairly and efficiently.
• The judge may discuss the type of evidence each party will need to prove their case.

If it is not possible to settle all the issues by agreement, the judge may direct that one or more issues be set for an interim hearing. Interim hearings are scheduled:

• for matters that are urgent, such as temporary orders for contact or parenting time, child support, and protection or conduct orders; or
• for procedural issues, such as disclosure of Form 4 Financial Statements; or information from third parties such as the Ministry of Child, Family and Community Services.

They are usually set for an hour or two, on a single issue. If an “interim order” is made, it will usually last for a specified period of time, or until another order can be made after a full hearing at a trial.

Final trials are scheduled to conclude applications that cannot be settled at a Case Conference or by mediation outside the court. At a final trial the judge may also consider issues dealt with in any interim orders that have been made, if there is additional or new information.

There are two important rules that apply in Case Conferences.

1. The parties must listen respectfully to one another and not interrupt. In BC Supreme Court witnesses can be questioned under oath at an “examination for discovery” before their trial. In Provincial Court there are no examinations for discovery, so the Case Conference is an important opportunity to hear from and ask questions of the other side.

2. The conversation between the parties and the judge in a Case Conference is private and confidential. That means that if the matter ends up in a trial, neither party may mention anything said in the Case Conference to the trial judge. This helps the parties to speak freely without worrying that any admissions or acknowledgments they make will be used against them if the case does not settle. Sometimes the freedom to discuss the issues fully leads the parties to settlement.

The only exception to the confidentiality rule is if the parties reach an agreement. Then the terms of the agreement are recorded in a Case Conference Record and they are not confidential.

When are Family Case Conferences not held?
When an application is for child and/or spousal support and nothing else, the Court will set a hearing rather than a Family Case Conference.

If there has been violence in the relationship you or your lawyer can tell the judge that a Family Case Conference would not be appropriate, or that it should be held in a courtroom in the presence of a Sheriff, or by telephone.

Keep in mind that although Family Case Conferences are not formal hearings, they are still part of the court process. It is a good idea to speak with a lawyer about your case before the Case Conference. A lawyer can advise you of your chances of success if your case goes to trial, tell you about additional evidence you will need and suggest reasonable possibilities for settlement. See the Clicklaw Helpmap for help finding a lawyer or legal advice. It includes free or low-cost options.

The more preparation you do before the Case Conference, the better. Gather your facts and think about how you can prove them. You must bring any documents, reports, photographs that you intend to rely on to the Family Case Conference. Make copies for the other party. Think about what you really want from the case, what the other party may want and whether there are any solutions that might satisfy you both. If the issues involve children, think about how their needs can best be met, because that will be the judge’s focus.

Find more information to help you prepare in Resources for Family Cases, especially Information on Family Law and Preparing for a Family Court trial.

This article provides general information only and should not be used authority in court proceedings or as a substitute for legal advice. Updated October 2020