Family Law Arbitration

From Clicklaw Wikibooks

Arbitration is a dispute resolution process in which the parties hire a neutral third party, a family law arbitrator, to make a decision resolving their dispute. The parties sign an arbitration agreement to start the process, which says, among other things, that the parties will be bound by the arbitrator's decision. While the job of a mediator is to help two people work towards a resolution of their family law dispute that they make for themselves, the arbitrator's job is to act like a judge and impose a resolution, after hearing the evidence and listening to the arguments of each party.

This section provides an introduction to arbitration and discusses when to use arbitration in a family law dispute. It also provides some suggestions about how to find a family law arbitrator.

Arbitration in British Columbia[edit]

Before the new Family Law Act became law in British Columbia, arbitration was rarely used in family law disputes, probably because most lawyers figured that if they have to have somebody make a decision in a case, it might as well be a judge. Arbitration was most often used in the context of labour and construction disputes. In other places, such as Ontario and Alberta, the arbitration of family law disputes is well-established and has been for some time. The Family Law Act, however, made a number of changes to the law that improved the usefulness of arbitration in family law disputes in British Columbia, and the number of people choosing arbitration is increasing as a result.

Arbitration has a number of advantages for resolving family law problems:

  1. It allows the parties to hand-pick the particular person who will make decisions about the issues they cannot agree on, which means that they might pick an arbitrator who is not just an expert family law lawyer, but a lawyer with special knowledge of, for example, the care of children, tax problems, or property issues.
  2. It allows the couple to pick the particular rules that will apply to the hearing and the decision-making process.
  3. The arbitration process is private, confidential, and closed to the public.
  4. The result of the process is an award that is just as binding as a court order and is enforceable just like a court order.

As well, it's often faster to arrange a date for an arbitration than for a court hearing. Although short trials of two or three days can usually be booked within eight or ten months, it can take a year or more to get a date for longer trials because the court is so busy. An arbitration hearing can be booked as soon as everyone has the free time in their calendars.

Arbitration processes[edit]

When parties agree to arbitrate their dispute — you can't force someone into arbitration, it has to be voluntary — they first pick their arbitrator and then meet with the arbitrator to discuss the process leading to the arbitration hearing, decide the date and place for the hearing, and pick the rules that will govern the hearing.

A lot of the time, the rules that people select are taken from the more important parts of the Supreme Court Family Rules that talk about evidence, experts, and hearing procedures. However, there are lots of other options. People can pick the rules that best suit the circumstances of their children, their dispute, and their finances.

An outline of the basic arbitration process[edit]

Most of the time, the next step after the initial meeting requires the parties to exchange the documents and information that are relevant to their dispute. If child support is an issue, for example, financial statements might be prepared and documents like income tax returns, T4 slips, and paystubs might be exchanged.

For complicated problems, the parties might also hire an expert to give an opinion about things like the value of a pension, a tax problem, or the best parenting arrangements for the children. That last kind of opinion is called a parenting assessment or a section 211 report, and is usually prepared by a psychologist, clinical counsellor, or social worker.

The nature of the documents that are important, the extent of the disclosure that is required, and the type of expert opinions that are most useful will change depending on the circumstances, the legal issues, and how the parties decide to approach the arbitration process.

Once the appropriate documents have been exchanged and any opinions have been completed, the parties will attend the hearing with their arbitrator and with their lawyers, if they have any. These hearings can take place in the arbitrator's office, a boardroom in a hotel or anywhere else that's private, and are usually less formal than court hearings; arbitration processes can be as formal or informal as the parties and the arbitrator want.

At the hearing, each party makes an opening argument describing the evidence that will be given and then presents their evidence. The parties' evidence usually consists of the testimony of witnesses, documents, and affidavits. Each party then makes a closing argument to show the arbitrator why the arbitrator should resolve their dispute in the way they each prefer.

After the hearing process is over, the arbitrator will provide a written decision, called an award, summarizing the evidence and resolving all of the legal issues, and explaining why the arbitrator resolved the issues in the way they resolved them.

Alternative processes[edit]

Arbitration processes can be as simple or as complicated as the parties want. The basic arbitration process just described looks and feels very much like the process that applies in court. However, it isn't always necessary to have a witness who gives oral evidence, or to have any evidence at all. It isn't always necessary to have oral arguments. And, if the parties agree, awards can be given orally, rather than in writing.

Here are some examples of alternative arbitration processes:

  1. The parties could make their arguments to the arbitrator by telephone or videoconference, with no evidence at all, and the arbitrator giving an oral decision right there on the spot. (This process would be ideal for decisions about a legal question where the facts either don't matter or aren't in dispute. It's also the cheapest and fastest way to get a decision.)
  2. If evidence is necessary to help the arbitrator make their decision, the parties could make their arguments by telephone or video, and the evidence could be presented by affidavits alone, without the testimony of any witness.
  3. If an in-person hearing is necessary, the parties could agree that evidence will be provided by affidavit with the people who made the affidavits being cross-examined by the other person or their lawyer. Or, the parties could agree that only a limited number of witnesses will testify, and that each party will have a limited amount of time to examine and cross-examine each witness.
  4. If an in-person hearing is necessary and the parties agree to very few of the important facts, the parties could have an arbitration with all the bells and whistles available in litigation, with no limits on the number or amount of time for each witness. (This process will take the longest time to wrap up and also cost the most money.)
  5. Where neither party is represented by a lawyer, the hearing could be in-person but be managed completely by the arbitrator who can explore issues and ask questions. The arbitrator would work with the parties to identify the legal issues in the dispute, and then lead the examination of all of the witnesses.

The only rules that must be followed in an arbitration are that the arbitrator must give each party the opportunity to make their case, and reply to the case made by the other party, and that the arbitrator must treat each party fairly and not be biased in favour of one party over the other. Otherwise, the parties and the arbitrator are free to be creative and create the rules that are best-suited to the parties, their children, their dispute, and their budget.

One family law arbitrator has developed a checklist of procedural elements that is helpful for designing arbitration processes, and covers every part of the arbitration process, from deciding whether to have an in-person hearing or a hearing by videoconference, to whether and how experts will be hired, to how evidence will be presented at the hearing. The "Arbitration Rules Pick-List" is available from John-Paul Boyd Arbitration Chambers.

Essentials of the Arbitration Act[edit]

The arbitration of family law disputes in British Columbia is governed by the provincial Arbitration Act, formerly known as the Commercial Arbitration Act. The highlights of the act are these:

Section 1: An arbitrator is defined as a person who resolves a dispute referred to them by the parties. An arbitration agreement is an agreement between two or more persons to have their dispute resolved by arbitration.

Section 2: The act applies to commercial arbitration agreements and "any other arbitration agreement," including family law arbitration agreements. When making decisions about children, the arbitrator must consider only the best interests of the children.

Section 9: An arbitrator can make interim awards on any of the issues identified in the arbitration agreement, such as interim awards regarding the care of children, child support, and spousal support.

Section 14: The final decision of an arbitrator is binding on the parties, although the arbitrator's decision can be changed or cancelled if the process or decision is procedurally defective, under section 30, or if the decision is appealed to the court, under section 31.

Section 23: "An arbitrator must adjudicate the matter before the arbitrator by reference to law unless the parties, as a term of an agreement referred to in section 35, agree that the matter in dispute may be decided on equitable grounds, grounds of conscience or some other basis." Awards that are inconsistent with the Family Law Act are not enforceable.

Section 29: Awards in family law disputes can be enforced without first getting the court's permission.

Section 30: The court can change an award for the same reasons that it can change a court order.

Section 31: Awards in family law disputes can be appealed.

Other ways arbitration can be used in family law disputes[edit]

Arbitration is very flexible and very useful. Parenting coordinators use a process a lot like arbitration to make a decision resolving a disagreement when the parents aren't able to find a solution to which they both agree. The flexibility of arbitration means that people can ask their arbitrator to make a decision based on the rules of a religion.

Arbitration can also be used to:

  • break logjams in settlement discussions, where only one or two issues can't be agreed upon,
  • resolve disagreements about how the law should be interpreted or applied in a particular situation,
  • make temporary decisions about support or parenting arrangements while the parties are negotiating a settlement, or
  • perform difficult calculations, like about the amount of costs payable, the income of someone who is self-employed, the amount of spousal support payable, or the after-tax cost of children's expenses.

Faith-based arbitration[edit]

Under the Arbitration Act, the parties can choose their own rules to govern the arbitration process. Nothing in the act says that those rules cannot be religious rules. Judaism and Islam each have religious laws that can apply to family law disputes for members of those faiths. Members of the orthodox Jewish community may use the Beth Din to settle personal disputes. Muslims can use Sharia law for the same purpose.

Whatever rules a couple chooses, however, the result of an arbitration cannot be contrary to the law of British Columbia. Section 23(2) says this:

Despite any agreement of the parties to a family law dispute, a provision of an award that is inconsistent with the Family Law Act is not enforceable.

This means, for example, that child support must be paid to the person who has the child most of the time by the person who has the child for the least amount of time, and the amount that person pays cannot be too different from what the Child Support Guidelines require.

Note that if the parties to faith-based arbitration wish to obtain a divorce, they must still start a court proceeding in the Supreme Court of British Columbia for a divorce order. A religious divorce, such as the Jewish Get, is not a legal divorce.

Parenting coordination[edit]

The Arbitration Act also applies to parenting coordination. In this dispute resolution process, the arbitrator, called a parenting coordinator, tries to first settle a parenting dispute through a settlement process like mediation. If the parents cannot find consensus, the parenting coordinator acts like an arbitrator and makes a written decision, called a determination, resolving the disputes. The parenting coordinator's authority to resolve these disputes comes from the arbitration agreement the parents sign, in this case called a parenting coordination agreement.

As with faith-based arbitration, or any other kind of family law arbitration for that matter, the parenting coordinator cannot make determinations that are contrary to the law in British Columbia, including the federal Divorce Act or the provincial Family Law Act. The court will not uphold determinations that are contrary to the law in this province.

Parenting coordinators are also restricted in the scope of the things they can make decisions about. Under section 6(3) and (4)(a)(ix) of the Family Law Act Regulation, parenting coordinators can make determinations about parenting arrangements, contact with a child, and other issues agreed to by the parties and the parenting coordinator. However, regardless of whatever the parties and the parenting coordinator may have agreed to, a parenting coordinator may not make decisions about:

  • legal issues that are excluded by an order or a parenting coordination agreement,
  • changes to the guardianship of a child,
  • changes to the allocation of parental responsibilities,
  • giving parenting time or contact to a person who does not already have parenting time or contact,
  • substantial changes to parenting time or contact, or
  • the relocation of a child.

There's a lot more information about parenting coordination in the next section in this chapter.

When to use arbitration[edit]

Only a few circumstances make arbitration a necessary choice over mediation, collaborative settlement processes, or litigation. Typically, a couple will choose arbitration if:

  • they wish the laws of their religion or another set of principles to apply to their dispute,
  • their positions are too far apart to make negotiation or mediation a reasonable choice and must have a decision made for them, but don't want to go to the expense, anxiety, and acrimony typically involved in going to court,
  • they want to resolve their dispute discreetly and privately, and don't want to risk their personal business being made public,
  • the issues are complex and require a decision-maker who is a specialist in those issues, or
  • they want their dispute resolved more quickly than the court schedule will allow.

It's important to understand that while arbitrators can make awards on all of the usual family law issues, like parenting arrangements, contact, child support, spousal support, and the division of property and debt, arbitrators cannot make awards on issues that can only be decided by a judge. These include:

  • divorce orders and annulments,
  • orders appointing someone as the guardian of a child who is not a parent of that child,
  • declarations about who is, and who is not, the parent of a child, and
  • orders changing the order of a judge.

How to find a family law arbitrator[edit]

This is the hard part about arbitrating family law disputes, as there aren't too many arbitrators who specialize in family law issues. Your first and best bet is to contact organizations that specialize in training or setting practice standards for family law arbitrators, such as:

As an alternative, you could try calling a family law lawyer or two and asking if they know and could recommend anyone who arbitrates family law disputes. You could call the Canadian Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service. Although the service can't recommend one family law arbitrator over another, they will be able to give you some names. You could also do an internet search for "family law arbitrator" — putting your search terms in quotes will make your search engine look for the exact term — and see who you can find that way.

Resources and links[edit]

Legislation[edit]

Links[edit]


This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by John-Paul Boyd, May 11, 2019.


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Normally referred to as the "Supreme Court of British Columbia," this court hears most court proceedings in this province. The Supreme Court is a court of inherent jurisdiction and is subject to no limits on the sorts of claims it can hear or on the sorts of orders it can make. Decisions of the Provincial Court are appealed to the Supreme Court; decisions of the Supreme Court are appealed to the Court of Appeal. See "Court of Appeal," "jurisdiction," "Provincial Court," and "Supreme Court of Canada."

A court established and staffed by the provincial government, which includes Small Claims Court, Youth Court, and Family Court. The Provincial Court is the lowest level of court in British Columbia and is restricted in the sorts of matters it can deal with. It is, however, the most accessible of the two trial courts and no fees are charged to begin or defend a family court proceeding. The Family Court of the Provincial Court cannot deal with the division of family property or matters under the Divorce Act. See "judge" and "jurisdiction."

The processes used to conclusively resolve legal disputes including negotiation, collaborative settlement processes, mediation, arbitration, and litigation.

A person named in a court proceeding or joined to a proceeding who is neither the claimant nor the respondent. A third party may be joined to a proceeding where the respondent believes that the person has or shares some responsibility for the cause of action. See "action," "cause of action," and "party."

A lawyer or another person with special training in the arbitration of family law disputes who meets the training and experience requirements set out in the provincial Family Law Act Regulation. See "arbitration."

A dispute resolution process in which an arbitrator hears the evidence and arguments presented by the parties to a legal dispute and makes an award which resolves the dispute and is binding on the parties. See "alternative dispute resolution" and "family law arbitrator."

In law, a judge's conclusions after hearing argument and considering the evidence presented at a trial or an application; a judgment; the judge's reasons. A judge's written or oral decision will include the judge's conclusions about the relief or remedies claimed as well as their findings of fact and conclusions of law. A written decision is called the judge’s "reasons for judgment." See "common law," "conclusions of law," and "findings of fact."

A person appointed by the federal or provincial government to manage and decide court proceedings in an impartial manner, independent of influence by the parties, the government, or agents of the government. The decisions of a judge are binding upon the parties to the proceeding, subject to appeal.

In law, any proceeding before a judicial official to determine questions of law and questions of fact, including the hearing of an application and the hearing of a trial. See "decision" and "evidence."

Facts or proof of facts presented to a judge at a hearing or trial. Evidence can be given through the oral testimony of witnesses, in writing as business records and other documents, or in the form of physical objects. Evidence must be admissible according to the rules of court and the rules of evidence. See "circumstantial evidence," "hearsay," and "testimony."

In law, a person named as an applicant, claimant, respondent, or third party in a court proceeding; someone asserting a claim in a court proceeding or against whom a claim has been brought. See "action" and "litigant."

In law, a court proceeding; a lawsuit; an action; a cause of action; a claim. Also the historic decisions of the court. See "action," "case law, " "court proceeding," and "precedent."

In law, the interpretation of something, like a document or a set of circumstances, so as to give it meaning. For example, if a separation agreement stated that one guardian "will have the children on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday" but didn’t say anything about the other guardian, the agreement would be constructed to mean that the other guardian would have the children on the days that weren't mentioned.

A person licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. See "barrister and solicitor."

Something which can be owned. See "chattels" and "real property."

A mandatory direction of an arbitrator, binding and enforceable upon the parties to an arbitration proceeding, made following the hearing of the arbitration trial proceeding or the parties' settlement, following which the only recourse open to a dissatisfied party is to challenge or appeal the award in court. See "appeal," "arbitration," and "family law arbitrator."

In law, a requirement or obligation to honour and abide by something, such as a contract or order of the court. A judge's order is "binding" in the sense that it must be obeyed or a certain punishment will be imposed. Also refers to the principle that a higher court's decision on a point of law must be adopted by a lower court. See "contempt of court" and "precedent."

A mandatory direction of the court, binding and enforceable upon the parties to a court proceeding. An "interim order" is a temporary order made following the hearing of an interim application. A "final order" is a permanent order, made following the trial of the court proceeding or the parties' settlement, following which the only recourse open to a dissatisfied party is to appeal. See "appeal," "consent order," "decision," and "declaration."

In law, a court proceeding, a lawsuit, a legal action, a case; a claimant's claim against a respondent. In fashion, menswear designed to inflict maximum discomfort at maximum cost. See "action."

Money paid by one parent or guardian to another parent or guardian as a contribution toward the cost of a child's living and other expenses.

A term under the Family Law Act which describes the arrangements for parental responsibilities and parenting time among guardians, made in an order or agreement. "Parenting arrangements" does not include contact. See "contact," "guardian," "parental responsibilities," and "parenting time."

A step in a court proceeding in which each party both advises the other of the documents in their possession which relate to the issues in the court proceeding and produces copies of any requested documents before trial. This process is regulated by the rules of court, which put each party under an ongoing obligation to continue to advise the other of new documents coming into their possession or control. The purpose of this step is to encourage the settlement of court proceedings and to prevent a party from springing new evidence on the other party at trial.

In law, an attempt to persuade by logical reasoning. Usually refers to oral or written argument presented to a judge following the presentation of evidence, or to a written summary of argument.

Oral evidence given by a witness in court or in an affidavit under the witness's oath or affirmation as to the truth of the statement. See "affirm," "evidence," "oath," and "witness."

A person with direct, personal knowledge of facts and events; a person giving oral evidence in court on oath or affirmation as to the truth of the evidence given. See "affirm," "evidence," "oath," and "opinion evidence."

In law, an answer or rebuttal to a claim made or a defence raised by the other party to a court proceeding or legal dispute. See "action," "claim," "defence," and "rebut."

Intentionally doing a thing; a law passed by a government, also called "legislation" or a "statute." See "regulations."

A payment made by one spouse, the payor, to the other spouse, the recipient, to help with their day-to-day living expenses or to compensate the recipient for the financial choices the spouses made during the relationship.

A resolution of one or more issues in a court proceeding or legal dispute with the agreement of the parties to the proceeding or dispute, usually recorded in a written agreement or in an order that all parties agree the court should make. A court proceeding can be settled at any time before the conclusion of trial. See "action," "consent order," "family law agreements," and "offer."

A calculation of the allowable legal expenses of a party to a court proceeding, as determined by the Supreme Court Family Rules. The party who is most successful in a court proceeding is usually awarded their "costs" of the proceeding. See "account, "bill of costs," "certificate of costs," and "lawyer's fees."

A legal proceeding in which one party sues another for a specific remedy or relief, also called an "action," a "lawsuit," or a "case." A court proceeding for divorce, for example, is a proceeding in which the claimant sues the respondent for the relief of a divorce order.

The legal termination of a valid marriage by an order of a judge; the ending of a marital relationship and the conjugal obligations of each spouse to the other. See "conjugal rights," "marriage," and "marriage, validity of."

A child-focused dispute resolution process used to resolve disputes about parenting arrangements and the implementation of a parenting plan set out in a final order or agreement. See "alternative dispute resolution" and "parenting coordinator."

A lawyer or mental health professional with special training in the mediation and arbitration of family law disputes, family dynamics, and child developmental psychology who meets the training and experience requirements set out in the provincial Family Law Act Regulation.

A dispute resolution process in which a specially-trained neutral person facilitates discussions between the parties to a legal dispute and helps them reach a compromise settling the dispute. See "alternative dispute resolution" and "family law mediator."

A term under the Family Law Act that describes the visitation rights of a person, who is not a guardian, with a child. Contact may be provided by court order or by the agreement among the child's guardians who have parental responsibility for determining contact. See "guardian" and "parental responsibilities."

A person who is younger than the legal age of majority, 19 in British Columbia. See "age of majority."

A term under the Family Law Act which describes the various rights, duties, and responsibilities exercised by guardians in the care, upbringing, and management of the children in their care, including determining the child's education, diet, religious instruction or lack thereof, medical care, linguistic and cultural instruction, and so forth. See "guardian."

A term under the Family Law Act which describes the time a guardian has with a child and during which is responsible for the day to day care of the child. See "guardian."

(AKA collaborative process) A dispute resolution process in which the parties to a legal dispute and their lawyers agree that they will make every effort to resolve the dispute through cooperative, transparent negotiations, with the assistance of counsellors and neutral experts in financial issues and children's issues as necessary, without going to court. See "alternative dispute resolution."

In family law, the process by which an agreement is formed between the parties to a legal dispute resolving that dispute, usually requiring mutual compromise from the parties' original positions to the extent tolerable by each party. See "alternative dispute resolution" and "family law agreements."

A sum of money or an obligation owed by one person to another. A "debtor" is a person responsible for paying a debt; a "creditor" is the person to whom the debt is owed.

In family law, the natural or adoptive father or mother of a child; may also include stepparents, depending on the circumstances and the applicable legislation; may include the donors of eggs or sperm and surrogate mothers, depending on the circumstances and the terms of any assisted reproduction agreement. See "adoptive parent," "natural parent," and "stepparent."

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