Court Procedure: Steps in a Family Law Case

When do I go to court? What happens when I get there?

Previously, we reviewed the structure of the family court system in Ontario.  In this post, Jeffrey Sun, a University of Ottawa law student and Fresh Legal intern, summarizes the steps involved in a family law case in Ottawa.

While conducting a family law case is an intricate business, the order of the necessary steps, in broad strokes, can be summarized as follows:

Mandatory Information Program

With few exceptions, the first step in any family law proceeding is to attend a Mandatory Information Session at your local courthouse. These provide court participants with information about their divorce proceedings, including:

  • The effects of separation and divorce on adults and children;
  • Alternatives to litigation;
  • Family law issues;
  • The family court process; and
  • Local legal and non-legal resources and programs for adults and children.

First Court Date

You will meet with the First Court Date Clerk. The documents you filed will be reviewed and any deficiencies will be pointed out to you. You will also have the opportunity to schedule a date for your Case Conference. The overall goal of the First Court Date is to set a timeline for what follows, and to ensure you have submitted the proper documents to proceed.

Case Conference

This is a necessary step before any motions can be heard. For the case conference, you appear before a judge and will need to (a) file your Case Conference Brief and (b) update your Financial Statement (or submit an Affidavit that your Financial Statement has not changed). Additionally, you will need to submit a Financial Statement Disclosure form, that certifies you have made all the appropriate financial disclosure. The goal of the case conference is for the judge to explore the chances of settling, identify disputed issues, set a timetable, and give very basic orders (e.g., about disclosure and what key information must be exchanged).

Motions (Requests for Interim Orders)

Motion hearings are where matters are argued and orders about them are given.  For most motions, you will need to serve a Notice of Motion on the other party, and produce an Affidavit of Service, proving you served notice. The exception to the rule is for Emergency Motions.

Motion hearings are generally to settle interim matters until the issues are resolved on a final basis. You will have a chance to be heard on a specific matter, as will the other party. For the motion hearing, you will again need to update your Financial Statement, or submit an Affidavit that it remains unchanged.

Settlement Conferences

The goal of this conference is to encourage settlement of as many issues as is possible, in order to simplify the trial proceedings. All issues may be settled at this conference, negating the need for a trial. You can also expect an opinion on the case from the judge. For a settlement conference, you will need to submit a Settlement Conference Brief and update your Financial Statement.

Trial Management Conference

If issues remain unsettled the judge may set a Trial Management Conference. The goal of these conferences is two-fold: firstly, to attempt settlement for a last time, and secondly, to prepare both parties for the trial itself, including setting timelines for document exchange and disclosing information about witnesses. A Trial Management Conference Brief must be prepared and submitted.

Trial

For any matters that remain unresolved, trial will take place to arrive at a final decision. A trial is where each party has an opportunity to be heard by the judge, to present evidence, respond to the other party’s submissions, and to question witnesses in court. After all arguments are made, the judge will render a final and binding decision on the case.