Family Law Arbitration

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Revision as of 14:20, 11 May 2019 by Jpboyd (talk | contribs) (The Arbitration Act)

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, decided 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 witness who give 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 giving 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 by the arbitrator like an inquisition. 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.

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 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 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 dispute. The parenting coordinator's authority to resolve these dispute 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 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 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]



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

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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