The Law for Family Matters
When lawyers speak about the law, they are really talking about two different things. The first kind of law is the laws made by the provincial and federal governments, called legislation. The other kind of law is the common law, which is the rules and principles developed by the courts as they decide case after case.
This section provides an overview of legislated laws, the common law, and the common law system of justice. It also talks about how to decide whether to begin a court proceeding under the Divorce Act or the Family Law Act.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 The common law
- 3 Legislation
- 4 Choosing the law and the court
- 5 Resources and links
Under the Constitution of Canada, the federal and the provincial governments both have the power to make laws. Each level of government has its own particular area of jurisdiction, meaning that a subject that the federal government can pass laws on, the provincial governments generally can't, and vice versa. For example, the provinces have jurisdiction over property rights, so they can pass laws governing real estate, the sale of cars, the division of family property, and so forth. The federal government doesn't have the ability to make laws about property rights, except in certain special circumstances. On the other hand, the federal government can pass laws dealing with the military, navigation and shipping, and divorce, things that are outside the jurisdiction of the provincial governments. This distinction is important in family law because the laws of both the federal and provincial governments can relate to a problem, and you need to know which law governs what issue.
Legislated laws are only one source of law. Our constitution is another source of law, and another is the common law, also known as judge-made law. The fundamental principle of the common law is the idea that when a court has made a decision on a particular issue, another court facing a similar issue — with similar parties in similar circumstances — ought to make a similar decision. Courts are said to be "bound" by the decisions of earlier courts in previous cases. As no two cases are entirely alike, each court's decision is said to stand for a principle, a statement of what the law should be in the particular circumstances of that case. Sometimes this principle is an elaboration or a clarification of the general rule on a particular subject; sometimes it is a statement about what the law ought to be.
Our constitution requires that the courts be independent from the government. Despite this separation, the courts have a certain kind of authority over the government and the government has a certain kind of authority over the courts. For example, if the government passes a law that the court concludes is contrary to the constitution, the court can strike the legislation or make the government change it. On the other hand, the government has the authority to pass laws that change the common law rules made by the courts, although it can't change the court's decision in a particular case.
The common law
The common law of Canada is hundreds of years old and has its roots in England, in the curia regis established by King Henry II in 1178 and in the court of common pleas established by the Magna Carta in 1215, although really the oldest cases we are likely to refer to are from the 1800s. The common law is developed by the courts as they deal with each case, following a legal principle known by its Latin name, stare decisis. Under this principle, a court dealing with a particular kind of problem is required, usually, to follow the decisions of previous courts that dealt with the same sort of problem in the same sort of circumstances. Court decisions are sometimes called "precedents" or "precedent decisions" because of the stare decisis principle.
Think of it like this. A long time ago, someone sued someone else for riding a horse onto his potato field without being invited. The court decided that you shouldn't be free to enter onto the property of another unless you were invited to do so, and found that the rider had trespassed. Someone else riding a different horse onto a different field would be found liable for trespass based on the principle established by the first court. The first case was a precedent for the court's decision in the second case.
The common law and government
While the court is more or less free to develop the common law as it sees fit, the principles of the common law can be overridden by legislation made by the government. For example, the laws that deal with the interpretation and enforcement of contracts were at one point entirely governed by the common law. The government, as it decided it needed to regulate different aspects of the law of contracts, has made legislation covering lots of different areas of contract law, including such laws as the provincial Sale of Goods Act or the federal Advance Payments for Crops Act. The new legislation overruled the old common law principles.
From a family law perspective, it used to be the case that a husband could sue someone else for "enticing" his wife to commit adultery or to leave him. Suing someone for enticement was a claim created by the courts. The Family Law Act now expressly forbids a spouse from bringing a court proceeding for enticement, thus overriding the common law rule. Other old common law claims abolished the Family Law Act include claims for breach of promise of marriage and loss of the benefits of marriage.
The common law and legislation
This leads to another important aspect of our legal system and the common law. The courts and the common law also play a role in interpreting laws made by the governments. Much of the case law in family law matters doesn't deal with ancient common law principles; it deals with how the courts have interpreted the legislation bearing on family law in the past. For example, s. 15.2(4) of the Divorce Act says that in considering a claim for spousal support, the court must:
... take into consideration the condition, means, needs and other circumstances of each spouse, including
(a) the length of time the spouses cohabited;
(b) the functions performed by each spouse during cohabitation; and
(c) any order, agreement or arrangement relating to support of either spouse.
A lot of the case law that deals with spousal support is about how this particular section of the Divorce Act has been interpreted in past cases. A lawyer making an argument about why spousal support should be awarded to her client now might make an argument to the judge supported by case law showing how this section has been interpreted to award spousal support in the past to spouses in circumstances similar to those of her client.
Finding case law
Because the common law consists of the decisions of judges made over the past several hundred years, the common law is researched by looking at these decisions. These decisions are written down and printed in books. These books, depending on the publisher, are issued on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis. (When you see a promotional photograph of a lawyer standing in front of a giant rack of musty, leather-bound books, the lawyer is standing in front of these collections of the case law.) These books, called reporters, are where the past decisions of the courts are available if you need to make an argument about how the law applies to your particular situation. The most important reporter for family law is called the Reports on Family Law, or the RFL for short, published by Carswell. You can find collections of case law reporters in the library of your local courthouse or at a law school in your neighbourhood. These libraries are open to the public, although they may have restricted business hours.
Thankfully, these days almost every important decision is published online as well. This makes research a lot easier and saves a lot of time travelling to and from libraries. CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute, has a collection of most cases published since 1990 and a growing number of older cases from all parts of Canada. There are video tutorials on using CanLII effectively, courtesy of CanLII's blog and Courthouse Libraries BC's website.
The courts also post case law on their respective websites. Search the judgments of:
- the Provincial Court of British Columbia,
- the Supreme Court of British Columbia,
- the Court of Appeal for British Columbia, and
- the Supreme Court of Canada.
These websites also keep lists of recently released decisions that may be published there before making it to CanLII.
Another way to look up case law is to read digests of the law on particular subjects. The best materials on family law are two books published by the Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia:the Family Law Sourcebook for British Columbia, and the British Columbia Family Practice Manual. These books are available in some public libraries (the WorldCat website will tell you if a library near you has copies) or at a branch of Courthouse Libraries BC.
Legal research can be terribly complex, partly because there are so many different reporters and partly because there are so many cases. In fact, legal research is the subject of a whole course at law school. You can get some help from the librarians at your local courthouse law library or university law library, all of whom are really quite helpful. In fact, the law library at UBC has a research desk that can help with certain limited matters. You might also consider hiring a law student to plough through the law for you, and the law schools at UBC, the University of Victoria and Thompson Rivers University will have job posting boards where you can put up a note about your needs and contact information.
If all else fails, or your issue is really complex, try hiring a professional legal researcher. The Legal Research section of the Canadian Bar Association BC maintains a list of freelance research lawyers, available on the Courthouse Libraries BC website.
Both the Parliament of Canada and the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia have the power to make laws in their different areas of authority. This kind of law is called legislation, and each piece of legislation, called a statute, is intended to address a specific subject, like how we drive a car or how houses are built, where and when we can fish or hunt, what companies can do, and how schools, hospitals and the post office work. Legislation governs how we interact with each other and implements government policy.
Government can also make regulations for a particular piece of statute that might contain important additional rules or say how the legislation is to be interpreted. The big difference between legislation and regulations is that legislation is publicly debated and voted on by the members of Parliament or the Legislative Assembly. Regulations are made by government without the necessity of a parliamentary vote, and often don't get much publicity as a result.
Because statutes and regulations have such a big impact on how we live our lives, they are relatively easy to find and relatively easy to understand. Unlike the common law, legislation is written down and organized. All of the current federal statutes can be found on the website of the Department of Justice. All of the current provincial statutes can be found on the BC Laws website run by the Queen's Printer.
CanLII also posts all current federal and provincial laws. It has the advantage of letting you see older versions of some laws, and you can search for cases that refer to specific statutes or regulations. You can also find the old Family Relations Act on CanLII, which you won't be able to find on the BC Laws website.
The division of powers
The governments' different areas of legislative authority are set out in ss. 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The federal government can only make laws about the subjects set out in s. 91 and the provincial governments can only make laws about the subjects set out in s. 92.
From a family law perspective, this means that only the federal government has the authority to make laws about marriage and divorce, while the provincial governments have the exclusive authority to make laws about marriage ceremonies, the division of property, and civil rights. As a result, the federal Divorce Act talks about divorce and issues that are related to divorce, like the care of children, child support and spousal support. The provincial Family Law Act talks about the care of children, child support and spousal support as well, but also talks about the division of family property and family debt, the management of children's property, and determining the parentage of children.
The doctrine of paramountcy
Sometimes the subjects over which each level of government has authority overlap and, according to a legal principle called the doctrine of paramountcy, all laws are not created equal. Under this doctrine, federal legislation on a subject trumps any provincial legislation on the same subject. This is important because in family law both the Divorce Act and the Family Law Act deal with child support and spousal support. As a result, orders under Divorce Act will always be paramount to orders under the Family Law Act on the same subject.
Family law legislation
The two most important pieces of legislation relating to family matters are, as you will have gathered, the federal Divorce Act and the provincial Family Law Act. The most important regulation is the Child Support Guidelines, a regulation to the Divorce Act that has also been adopted for the Family Law Act.
The Divorce Act talks about:
- custody of and access to children,
- child support, and
- spousal support.
The Family Law Act talks about:
- determining the parentage of children,
- guardianship, parental responsibilities and parenting time,
- contact with a child,
- child support,
- spousal support,
- family property, family debt and excluded property,
- children's property,
- protection orders, and
- financial restraining orders.
The Child Support Guidelines talks about:
- calculating child support and determining children's special expenses,
- determining income, and
- disclosure of financial information.
Because family law issues can be very broad and touch on other areas of law, such as contract law or company law, other pieces of legislation may also apply to a problem. For example, the Name Act allows a spouse to change her name following a divorce, the Adoption Act deals with adoption, the Land Title Act deals with real property, the Partition of Property Act allows a co-owner of real property to force the sale of the property, and the Business Corporations Act deals with the incorporation of companies, shareholders' loans, and other things that may be important if a spouse owns or controls a company.
Choosing the law and the court
Both the federal Divorce Act and the provincial Family Law Act deal with family law issues. As well, both the Provincial Court and the Supreme Court have the authority to hear proceedings dealing with family law issues. Deciding which legislation you are going to make your claim under is called making the choice of law. Deciding in which court you are going to bring your claim is called making the choice of forum.
Because of the rules set out in the Constitution Act, 1867, the federal government has the sole authority to make laws on the following subjects:
- spousal support and child support, and
- custody of and access to children.
Because of the same statute, provincial governments have exclusive authority to make laws dealing with these subjects:
- the formalities of the marriage ceremony,
- spousal support and child support,
- guardianship, parental responsibilities and parenting time,
- contact with children,
- the division of family property and family debt,
- child welfare, and
- changes of name.
To further complicate things, the Provincial Court and the Supreme Court can make orders about some of the same subjects, but not all, under some of the same legislation, but not all. The Provincial Court can only deal with applications involving laws made by the provincial government and, even then, it cannot deal with applications involving the division of a property or debt, or adoption. In family law proceedings, the Provincial Court can only deal with applications involving the following subjects:
- guardianship, parental responsibilities, parenting time and contact under the Family Law Act,
- spousal support and child support under the Family Law Act,
- the enforcement of such orders made under the Family Law Act, and
- protection orders under the Family Law Act.
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, can deal with all of these subjects and everything else, like divorce and other claims under the Divorce Act.
If you wish to make a claim for an order for divorce, adoption, determining the parentage of a child, management of children's property, the division of family property and family debt, or the protection of family property, you must make your application to the Supreme Court. Otherwise, you can make your claim in either court.
Making matters worse, there can be simultaneous court proceedings involving the same people, and possibly the same problems, before both the Provincial Court and the Supreme Court. For example, an action for a couple's divorce can be before the Supreme Court at the same time as an application about parental responsibilities and spousal support is being heard by the Provincial Court. In such a circumstance, either party can make an application that the proceedings in the Provincial Court be joined with those in the Supreme Court so that both court proceedings are heard at the same time before the same court.
The choice of law
If you wish to obtain a divorce, you must make your claim under the Divorce Act. If you wish to obtain an order dealing with property or debt, you must make your claim under the Family Law Act. However, if you wish to apply for an order for almost anything else and you are married, you may make your claim under either piece of legislation.
There are one or two points you may wish to consider, however. Only married spouses make applications under the Divorce Act. Unmarried spouses and other unmarried people may make applications for relief under the Family Law Act alone. Also, if your proceeding is before the Provincial Court, you must make your claim under the Family Law Act. If your case is before the Supreme Court, you may claim under either the Divorce Act or the Family Law Act, or under both.
The following chart shows which law deals with which issue:
Family Law Act Divorce Act Divorce Yes Care of children Guardianship and
Custody Time with children Parenting time or
Access Child support Yes Yes Children's property Yes Spousal support Yes Yes Family property and
Yes Protection orders Yes Financial restraining orders Yes
The choice of forum
In family law matters, choosing the forum of a court proceeding means making the choice to proceed in either the Provincial Court or the Supreme Court. The Provincial Court has certain limits to its authority and, as a result has limits on the kinds of claims it can hear. The Supreme Court has the authority to deal with every almost legal issue within British Columbia. It also has something called "inherent jurisdiction," meaning that the Supreme Court, unlike the Provincial Court, is not limited to the authority it is given by legislation. It is safe to say that, as far as family matters are concerned, the Supreme Court can deal with everything the Provincial Court can as well as everything it can't.
The process of each court is guided by each court's set of rules. The Supreme Court Family Rules offer a much wider variety of tools and remedies than the Provincial Court Family Rules, particularly in terms of the information and documents each side can make the other produce in the course of a proceeding. For example, the Supreme Court rules allow a party to make the other party submit to an examination for discovery, or make a company or third party produce records. These disclosure mechanisms are not available in the Provincial Court.
You may want to think about the relative complexity of the two courts' sets of rules, particularly if you plan to represent yourself and not hire a lawyer. The Provincial Court's rules are written in plain language and are fairly straightforward. The Supreme Court Family Rules are much more complicated and aren't written in the most easy to understand language.
Finally, you may also want to think about the cost of proceeding in each court. The Provincial Court charges no filing fees and has a relatively streamlined procedure. The Supreme Court charges filing fees, and the extra tools and remedies available under the Supreme Court Family Rules are helpful but will add to the cost of bringing a proceeding to trial.
This chart shows which level of court can deal with which issue:
Provincial Court Supreme Court Divorce Act Yes Family Law Act Yes Yes Divorce Yes Care of children Yes Yes Time with children Yes Yes Child support Yes Yes Children's property Yes Spousal support Yes Yes Family property and
Yes Protection orders Yes Yes Financial restraining orders Yes
While it is possible to start an action in the Provincial Court to deal with one or two issues (like parental responsibilities or child support) and later start an action in the Supreme Court to deal with other issues (like dividing family property or divorce) it's usually best to confine yourself to a single court to avoid overlaps and keep things as simple as possible.
- Decisions of the Provincial Court of British Columbia
- Decisions of the Supreme Court of British Columbia
- Decisions of the Court of Appeal for British Columbia
- Decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada
- Courthouse Libraries BC (finding case law video tutorial)
- CanLII blog (video tutorials on using CanLII)
- List of legal research lawyers
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Bob Mostar and Mark Norton, June 8, 2017.|
|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.|