Going to family court can be a long and confusing process. This article is the first in a series that will take you through what to expect at each stage, and will help provide you with links to places where you can learn more about each step.
The first step when taking a matter to family court is an exchange of documents. In general the people involved take turns preparing an application, then a response and finally a reply to the response. Each document has to be filed with the court, as well as being ‘served’. Serving is a formal process where the person who created the document gives it to the other person involved in the case.
The very beginning of taking a matter to court is to have one person file an application. In Ontario, the form to file is Form 8 which has many options for the claims a person can make. The person who fills out that form is know as the Applicant, and they are responsible for filling out the form, as well as ‘serving’ the other people involved in the claim, known as the respondent.
The respondent needs to file a response and serve it to the applicant. The response gives the respondent a chance to address to the facts and claims made by the Applicant, as well as make new claims. Claims by the respondent are known as ‘counter claims’. The respondent has a deadline for filing his response, which, like the forms, can vary by province. In Ontario, the deadline is 30 days, and the form required is form 10 (link).
After receiving the response, the applicant has an opportunity to file and serve a ‘reply’. The reply is meant to address new facts and claims presented by the respondent. You can learn more about how to file a reply, and the timelines involved here.
During this initial period of exchanging documents (known as pleadings), both parties will be normally be required to share their financial information with each other. Depending on the court in which the application was filed, there may be a ‘first appearance’ scheduled, where the applicant and respondent meet with a court official to make sure they have filed the proper paperwork and disclosures finances appropriately.
Conferences and Motions
After the pleadings have been filed, the next step is a case conference. This is an informal meeting between a Judge, the applicant and the respondent. In general, the judge will go over the details of the pleadings, and will make orders for disclosure and questioning as needed. The judge might also make some ‘uncontested orders’ (ones where both parties agree).
After a case conference, the applicant and respondent are able to make motions to the court. This ability allows them to request smaller matters be handled until the trial is resolved. Motions often include establishing or varying support or custody arrangements, but all sorts of motions are possible.
A case conference marks the start of when parties can submit motions, but if a motion is urgent, it is possible to file an ‘ex parte’ motion earlier than a case conference.
Before an actual trial can be occur, a settlement conference needs to be scheduled. It is another informal meeting between judge, applicant and respondent, but unlike the case conference, it’s focus is on resolving issues between the parties. The judge will go over each part of the case, and try to narrow the scope of disagreement between the parties so that if a trial can’t be avoided, it can at least be focused on as few issues as possible.
Once a settlement conference has occurred, its’ possible to schedule a court date, although sometimes the parties will schedule additional settlement conferences after the first in the hopes of avoiding a trial.
Family courts are often overburdened, and it can take some time before the parties can schedule a trial date. As the date approaches, one final conference, called a trial management conference, occurs.
Unlike a settlement conference, a trial management conference is focused on the logistics of how the trial will proceed. Both parties will be required to outline who their witnesses will be, and how long they will need to examine them. A judge will make any last minute orders for disclosure or questioning, and both parties will give notice as to what issues they will hope to have the court address. The purpose of the trial management conference is to create a timeline for the trial, and handle the logistical needs of the court.
The structure of the trial itself can vary greatly depending on the issues at hand, and what is decided during the trial management conference.