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 that they agree they will be bound by. While the job of a mediator is to help two people work towards a solution 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

Arbitration has rarely used been in family law matters in British Columbia, probably because most lawyers figured that if they have to have somebody impose a decision in a case, it might as well be a judge. In British Columbia, arbitration was most often used in a labour law context; in other regions, such as Ontario, the arbitration of family law disputes is commonplace. The new Family Law Act, however, makes a number of changes to the provincial law that improve the usefulness of arbitration in family law disputes.

Arbitration has a number of advantages as a way of resolving family law problems:

  1. it allows a couple 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 has a special expertise in, 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 decision-making process,
  3. the arbitration process is private and closed to the public, and
  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 be booked within six or eight months, it can take a year or longer to get a date for longer trials because the court is so busy. An arbitration can be booked as soon as everyone has the free time in their calendars.

The arbitration process

When a couple agrees 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 and pick their rules. Most of the time, the rules that people select are the more important parts of the Supreme Court Family Rules relating to evidence, experts, and procedure at trial.

Next, the parties will 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.

If the parties cannot agree on how a child should be cared for, they might hire a psychologist to prepare a report on the parenting arrangements that will work best for the child, called a needs of the child assessment, or they might hire a third-party lawyer or a social worker to talk to the child and prepare a views of the child report. The nature of the documents that are important and the extent of the disclosure that is required will change, depending on the circumstances and how the parties decide to approach their dispute. There's more information about needs of the child assessments and views of the child reports in the introduction section of the Children chapter.

Once the documents have been exchanged and any reports have been prepared, the parties will attend one or more hearings with their arbitrator. These hearings take place in the arbitrator's office and are usually less formal than court hearings; there can be as much flexibility to the arbitration process as the parties and the arbitrator will agree to.

At these hearings, each party presents their evidence, which may include witnesses who give testimony or may be limited to documents and affidavits. Each party then makes arguments to show the arbitrator why they should make a particular decision.

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

The Arbitration Act

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," such as 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 subject at issue, 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, subject to the reversal of the arbitrator's decision if the process or decision is procedurally defective, under s. 30, or if the decision is appealed to the court, under s. 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 s. 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 leave of the court.

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

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

Faith-based arbitration

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 issues 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 to the same end.

Whatever rules a couple chooses, however, the result of the arbitration process must not be contrary to the laws 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 begin 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

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 sort of like an arbitrator and makes a written decision, called a determination, resolving the dispute. The parenting coordinator's authority to resolve these dispute comes from the arbitration agreement the parents will 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 s. 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 cannot make decisions about:

  • subjects 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 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

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

  • they wish the laws of their religion or another set of principles to apply to the proceedings,
  • 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 litigation,
  • they want to resolve their dispute discreetly and privately, and don't want to risk things being made public,
  • the issues are complex and require a decision-maker who is a specialist in the area, or
  • they want their dispute resolved more quickly than the court schedule will allow.

How to find a family law arbitrator

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. Finally, 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.

Resources and links



This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Sandy Thomson and Taryn Moore, August 1, 2016.

Creativecommonssmall.png 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.
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