What can I expect at a Family Settlement Conference?

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Updated May 2021

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 and the judge directed that you come back for a Family Settlement Conference on a future date. What happens at a Settlement Conference? How should you prepare?

When will a Family Settlement Conference be held?
There will not be a Family Settlement Conference in every case, but a judge may direct or order that you attend one if they think it’s possible you will reach a final order by consent.

Who must attend a Family Settlement Conference?
Each party (the person making the application and the person who replies to the application) must attend. If any party has hired a lawyer, the lawyer may 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 Settlement Conference?
The parties will meet with a Provincial Court judge, sitting around a table in a private conference room. The judge may 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.

If the parties need a trial to resolve some issues, a different judge will generally conduct the trial.

A Provincial Court conference room

What if you reach an agreement?
The terms of any agreement will be recorded in writing in a Family Settlement 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 longer, you may be required to file a Trial Readiness Statement and 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 by email or 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.

Final trials are scheduled to conclude applications that cannot be settled at a Family Management Conference, a Settlement 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 Settlement 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 Settlement 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 Settlement Conference is private and confidential. That means that if the matter ends up in a trial, neither party may mention anything said in the Settlement 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 Conference Record and they are not confidential.

When are Family Settlement Conferences not held?
If there has been violence in the relationship you or your lawyer can tell the judge that a Family Settlement Conference would not be appropriate, or that it should be held in a courtroom in the presence of a Sheriff, or by telephone or video-conference.

Keep in mind that although Family Settlement 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 Settlement 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 Settlement 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 Settlement 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 Matters 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.