Case Conferences in a Family Law Matter
A case conference is a meeting between the parties, their lawyers (if they have them), and a judge, usually for a purpose relating to the administration or the settlement of a court proceeding. Trial management conferences in the Supreme Court and trial preparation conferences in the Provincial Court are all about getting a proceeding ready for trial, and are held towards the end of a proceeding. Judicial case conferences in the Supreme Court and family case conferences in the Provincial Court are held early in a proceeding and are about settling issues than can be agreed on, getting interim arrangements in place for support and the care of the children, and planning the next few steps in the proceeding.
This section discusses judicial case conferences and family case conferences, their limitations and their uses, and provides some tips about how you can get the most out of your time and the judge's time at a case conference.
- 1 Resolving a court proceeding without a trial
- 2 Judicial case conferences
- 3 Family case conferences
- 4 Resources and links
Resolving a court proceeding without a trial
There are many reasons why it's important that family law court proceedings are resolved by agreement. From the court's point of view, settlement frees up valuable court and administrative resources that can be applied to other cases and lessens the likelihood that the proceeding will require ongoing court hearings in the future. From the point of view of the parties, the people involved in the family law case, settlement is cheap, helps to protect the children from ongoing conflict, and gives everyone involved the best chance of having a tolerable relationship with each other as time goes on.
Lawyers also have an interest in settling matters, for all of the same reasons why settlement is important to the courts and to the parties. In addition, lawyers have a professional and an ethical duty to promote settlement wherever possible, providing that a proposed settlement is not an unreasonable compromise of our clients' interests. This is written into our Code of Professional Conduct.
The laws and rules of court for family law proceedings have evolved to provide additional opportunities for settlement and steer people away from trial and out of court. In fact, s. 4 of the provincial Family Law Act says that the purposes of the part of the act on dispute resolution are to:
(b) to encourage parties to a family law dispute to resolve the dispute through agreements and appropriate family dispute resolution before making an application to a court;
(c) to encourage parents and guardians to
(i) resolve conflict other than through court intervention, and
(ii) create parenting arrangements and arrangements respecting contact with a child that is in the best interests of the child.
Rule 7-1 of the Supreme Court Family Rules, requires the parties to a family law court proceeding to attend a judicial case conference early in the proceeding, and Rule 7-2 allows the parties to schedule a settlement conference with a judge. Under Rule 7-1(15)(a), one of the purposes of a JCC is to:
identify the issues that are in dispute and those that are not in dispute and explore ways in which the issues in dispute may be resolved without recourse to trial
Rule 7 of the Provincial Court Family Rules allows a judge to require the parties to attend a family case conferences for the same sort of purpose, and Rule 7(4)(a) allows the judge hearing the FCC to attempt to mediate a resolution of the proceeding.
In general, if you can resolve a court proceeding without going to trial, you should. However, the settlement, whether it's reached with the help of a judge or not, must be fair and reasonable. (It's always a relief to settle a court proceeding, but if the settlement is unfair a return to court is inevitable!) Case conferences can really help to move a difficult case toward resolution, but the judge cannot force to you accept a settlement. You must agree that a proposed settlement is reasonable and agree to end the court proceeding on the terms of that settlement.
Judicial case conferences
Judicial case conferences in the Supreme Court, usually referred to as JCCs, are relatively informal, off-the-record, private meetings between the parties, their lawyers and a master or judge in a courtroom. JCCs must be held in all contested family law court proceedings, and, in most cases, they must be held before any interim applications can be heard.
Financial statements must be exchanged by the parties before each JCC. They must also be filed in court in advance of the JCC to give the judge the chance to read through them first.
Avoiding a judicial case conference
Rule 7-1(2) of the Supreme Court Family Rules says that:
Subject to subrules (3) and (4), unless a judicial case conference has been conducted in a family law case, a party to the family law case must not serve on another party a notice of application or an affidavit in support.
Subrule (3) sets out the exceptions to this requirement:
- when an application is being made for an order restraining either or both parties from disposing of property,
- when an order will be made with the agreement of both parties, and
- when the application is being made without notice being given to the other side (sometimes called an ex parte application or a without notice application).
Subrule (4) sets out some further exceptions to the general rule about JCCs and interim applications. However, if you need to ask for an exception under this subrule, you'll have to make an application to the court for an order granting the exception:
On application by a party, the court may relieve a party from the requirements of subrule (2) if
(a) it is premature to require the parties to attend a judicial case conference,
(b) it is impracticable or unfair to require the party to comply with the requirements of subrule (2),
(c) the application referred to in subrule (2) is urgent,
(d) delaying the application referred to in subrule (2) or requiring the party to attend a judicial case conference is or might be dangerous to the health or safety of any person, or
(e) the court considers it appropriate to do so in the circumstances.
In other words, if your application is urgent you can ask for permission to have your application heard before the first JCC. If your application falls into one of the exceptions set out in Rule 7-1(3), you don't need the court's permission. If your application doesn't fall into either category, you've got little choice but to have a JCC before you can bring your application.
Applications to be exempt from the JCC requirement are made by filing a special form of Requisition without an appearance in court.
Scheduling a judicial case conference
To set a date for a JCC, first contact the court registry and get their available dates. (JCCs are given a lot of priority by the registry staff, and you should be able to book a hearing date within a month or two.) In most cases, you will want to give these dates to the other side and select a date that you are both available for. It's just common courtesy to select a date that's convenient for everyone, plus you will want the other side to be able to attend the conference.
Once you have an agreeable date, call the registry back and tell them which date you've picked. They will then ask you to fill out and file a Notice of Judicial Case Conference in Form F19 setting that date. You must then serve a copy of your filed Notice of Judicial Case Conference on the other side, along with a copy of your financial statement, by ordinary service.
For a summary of how to schedule a JCC, see How Do I Schedule a Judicial Case Conference for Hearing? It's located in the How Do I? part of this resource, in the section Other Litigation Issues.
The purposes of judicial case conferences
The basic purposes of a JCC are to review the claims each side is making, determine where there is agreement, and see whether there is anything other than a trial that will resolve the claims in dispute. JCCs are relatively informal affairs, and most of the time everyone sits at a large table with the judge or master who is hearing the JCC. JCCs are private. Only the parties and their lawyers are allowed to be there. They are also held on an off-the-record basis, so that nothing said in the JCC can be used against anyone later on.
Different judges and masters will handle JCCs in different ways. Some judges and masters are very hands-on; others take a more distant, judicial approach. Some are very keen to try to settle a dispute, and will work almost like a mediator; others are content to leave areas of disagreement alone and focus on getting a resolution in place on the areas of agreement instead. Some judges and masters will provide an informal opinion about the likely result in a particualr case; others won't. There are no guarantees that a JCC will be run in a particular way.
However, JCCs are very useful in almost all cases. Some cases will even settle at a JCC, with no need for further litigation. The court's powers at JCCs are set out at Rule 7-1(15) and are very broad. The court may:
(a) identify the issues that are in dispute and those that are not in dispute and explore ways in which the issues in dispute may be resolved without recourse to trial;
(b) make orders to which all the parties consent;
(c) mediate any of the issues in dispute;
(d) with the consent of the parties, refer any issues to mediation with a private mediator;
(e) refer the parties to a family justice counsellor, or to a person designated by the Attorney General to provide specialized support assistance, if the court has received written advice from the regional manager that the family justice counsellor or designated person is readily available to the parties;
(f) direct a party to attend the Parenting after Separation program operated by the Family Justice Services Division (Justice Services Branch), Ministry of Attorney General;
(g) make orders respecting amendment of a pleading, petition or response to petition within a fixed time;
(h) make orders requiring that particulars be provided in relation to any matter raised in a pleading;
(i) make orders respecting discovery of documents;
(j) make orders respecting examinations for discovery;
(k) direct that any or all applications must be made within a specified time;
(l) reserve a trial date for the family law case or reserve a date for a trial that is restricted to issues defined by the parties;
(m) set a date for a trial management conference under Rule 14-3;
(n) make any orders that may be made at a trial management conference under Rule 14-3 (9);
(o) without hearing witnesses, give a non-binding opinion on the probable outcome of a hearing or trial;
(p) without limiting any other orders respecting timing that may be made under this subrule, make orders respecting timing of events;
(q) adjourn the judicial case conference;
(r) direct the parties to attend a further judicial case conference at a specified date and time;
(s) make any procedural order or give any direction that the court considers will further the object of these Supreme Court Family Rules.
At the JCC, each side will have the opportunity to tell their story and explain why they want what they're asking for. Most of the time, the lawyers for each party will state their understanding of the facts and why their clients should have what they're looking for, and the clients will be asked if they have anything to add. Frankly, JCCs usually work best when the parties are able to express their own views and concerns freely.
It is important to remember that while the judge or master may (and should!) push the parties to agree about certain things, they don't have to agree. The judge or master cannot make any orders, except for procedural orders, that the parties don't agree with. If you're not happy with a potential order that's being discussed, you must say so!
It is possible for some or all issues to be settled at a JCC. Where there are areas of agreement — which could concern anything, from a temporary parenting schedule, to a protection order, to the sale of the family home — the judge or master will make that order. Areas that can't be agreed upon will be left for further negotiation and further litigation.
Even if nothing can be agreed upon, the judge or master will usually make a series of orders about the next procedural steps in the litigation. Typically, these will include:
- scheduling an application for hearing,
- setting dates for the exchange of documents and lists of documents,
- setting dates for examinations for discovery,
- scheduling a settlement conference,
- resolving issues about experts and custody and access reports,
- setting the dates for the trial management conference and the trial, and
- scheduling the dates for any further JCCs.
At the end of the conference, the court clerk will print out a case management plan that will show the orders that have been agreed to, the issues still in dispute, and any schedule for the next steps in the litigation. Most of the time, both parties and their lawyers will sign the case management plan; no one needs to sign a case management plan where nothing was agreed to.
Family case conferences
There are two big differences between judicial case conferences in the Supreme Court and family case conferences in the Provincial Court. First, FCCs aren't mandatory and you only get to have an FCC if a judge orders that you have one. Second, the judge at an FCC has the discretion to make orders without the consent of a party. Otherwise FCCs are pretty much just like JCCs.
Applying for a family case conference
Under Rule 7(1) of the Provincial Court Family Rules, a judge may order the parties to attend an FCC where the case involves contested claims about guardianship or for parental responsibilities, parenting time or contact. An application for an FCC can be made at a first appearance or at any subsequent appearance, or by Notice of Motion like any other interim application.
It is fairly easy to get an order that an FCC be heard as the court will usually agree that an FCC is a good idea. The court will not be interested in granting an FCC if:
- it's obvious that you've asked for the FCC to obstruct the hearing or trial or an interim application,
- there's already been an FCC heard in your case and there's nothing to suggest that a new FCC will have a better chance of success, or
- there is an urgent reason for the case to head to trial without further delay.
Scheduling a family case conference
FCCs are booked by the judicial case manager, and if you get an order for an FCC, the judge will adjourn your case to the judicial case manager to get a date set up. Like JCCs, it is good idea to pick a date on which everyone is available to attend.
The judicial case manager will fix the date for the FCC on the spot and give you a slip with the date and time on it.
For a summary of how to schedule a case conference, see How Do I Schedule a Family Case Conference for Hearing? It's located in the How Do I? part of this resource, in the section Other Litigation Issues.
The purposes of family case conferences
The primary purpose of an FCC is to reach a settlement of any disputed parenting issues. Although Rule 7 limits the circumstances in which an FCC can be ordered to parenting issues, it doesn't say that no other issues can be discussed at an FCC, and the judge may be prepared to deal with support issues as well.
FCCs are relatively informal affairs, and most of the time everyone sits at a large table with the judge who is hearing the FCC. FCCs are private; under Rule 7(2) only the parties and their lawyers are allowed to be there. Under Rule 7(3), the judge may give permission for other people, including the parties' child, to attend. FCCs are held on an off-the-record basis, so that nothing said in the FCC can be used against anyone later on.
Although different judges will handle FCCs in different ways, most of the time the judge will act like a mediator. Some judges will handle the FCC in a reserved, judicious manner. Others are more hands-on and will do everything they can to help the parties settle their issues, including:
- scheduling a series of FCCs,
- speaking directly to the children,
- ordering or recommending views of the child reports, and
- asking important third parties, like a new spouse or a half-sibling, to attend a future FCC.
At the FCC, each side will have the opportunity to tell their story and explain why they want what they're asking for. Most of the time, the lawyers for each party will state their understanding of the facts and why their clients should have what they're looking for, and the clients will be asked if they have anything to add. Frankly, FCCs usually work best when the parties are able to voice their own views and concerns freely.
Cases often settle at FCCs. In order to maximize the chances of settlement, it is critical that you get proper legal advice about your situation and options before you go to the FCC if you don't have a lawyer. If you do have a lawyer, you should speak to him or her about the range of potential results and areas where you might want to compromise your position.
It is possible for some or all issues to be settled at a FCC. Where there are areas of agreement, the judge will make that order. Issues that can't be agreed upon will be left for further negotiation and further litigation.
Rule 7(4) lists the things a judge can do at a FCC:
The judge at the family case conference may do one or more of the following:
(a) mediate any of the issues in dispute;
(b) decide any issues that do not require evidence;
(c) with consent of the parties, refer any issues to mediation with a private mediator;
(d) if the regional manager has advised the court in writing that the person or program is readily available to the parties, refer the parties to a family justice counsellor or to a person designated by the Attorney General to provide specialized maintenance assistance;
(e) adjourn the case for purposes of mediation under paragraph (c) or a referral under paragraph (d);
(f) make an order to which all of the parties consent;
(g) direct that any or all applications must be made within a set time;
(h) direct the parties to attend a further family case conference, setting a date for that conference;
(i) set a date for a trial preparation conference under rule 8;
(j) make any order that may be made at a trial preparation conference under rule 8 (4);
(k) if the judge does not set a date for a further family case conference or for a trial preparation conference, set a trial date for the matter or set a date for a trial that is restricted to issues defined by the parties;
(l) make an interim or final order requested in an application, reply or notice of motion;
(m) without hearing witnesses, give a non-binding opinion on the probable outcome of a hearing or trial;
(n) make any other order or give any direction that the judge considers appropriate.
Although that last item, "make any other order or give any direction that the judge considers appropriate," sounds pretty all-encompassing and all-powerful, in practice the court rarely makes orders that one or more parties oppose.
- Provincial Court Act
- Provincial Court Family Rules
- Supreme Court Act
- Supreme Court Family Rules
- Court Rules Act
- Provincial Court Practice Directions
- Supreme Court Family Practice Directions
- Supreme Court Administrative Notices
- Supreme Court Trial Scheduling
- Provincial Court website
- Supreme Court website: Litigants' Guide to Judicial Case Conferences
- Legal Services Society: Judicial Case Conferences in Supreme Court
- Legal Services Society: How to deal with a JCC
- Legal Services Society: Family Case Conferences in Provincial Court
- Legal Services Society: Family Case Conference Checklist
|The above was last reviewed for legal accuracy by JP Boyd, May 19, 2013.|
|JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|