What can I expect at a family court trial or hearing

Posted to: 
Court
Law
19/12/2017

There’s no doubt that being involved in a family court trial is stressful. The issues – often affecting relationships with children and/or financial security - are central to people’s lives. And emotions usually run high. If you’re trying to present your case without a lawyer you have the added stress of navigating an unfamiliar court system.

So knowing what to expect can make it a little easier. Today’s eNews explains how a family court trial usually works in BC Provincial Court.

Before the trial starts

It’s wise to arrive a little before the time your case is scheduled. There can be a parking shortage around larger courthouses, so allow time to park if you’re driving and allow time to find the courtroom.

In some courthouses you go first to an assignment courtroom where a judicial case manager checks with people to make sure they are ready to proceed, and then sends them to a trial courtroom that is ready to start their trial.

In smaller courthouses you go directly to the trial courtroom. There may be other cases assigned to that courtroom – if so, the judge will sort out which should go first. Judges regret having to make people wait, but since the Court can’t control whether each case will proceed as scheduled we need to make sure there are enough cases scheduled to avoid wasting the available court time.

If you do have to wait, you can usually wait inside the courtroom – this gives you a chance to watch other cases, and you’ll be on the spot when your name is called.

When the judge is ready to deal with your case the court clerk will call out your name and that of the other party. (They read the name of the applicant, the person who filed the first application or motion, first.) Walk to the front of the courtroom and stand until the judge invites you to sit. If a lawyer is participating they will introduce themselves. If they don’t introduce you or there is no lawyer involved, introduce yourself or the judge will ask your name.

When a party (a person involved in a lawsuit) has a lawyer, their lawyer will speak for them except when they testify (take an oath or affirmation to tell the truth and speak from the witness box). A party who doesn’t have a lawyer may have a support person with them in a family court trial to provide quiet help unless the judge decides it would be disruptive or unfair. See the Court’s Support Person Guidelines for more on this.


There are usually four stages in a family court trial:

Opening

The judge may begin by asking each party what court orders they are requesting, what the issues are, what their position on each issue is, and how many witnesses they will present during the hearing. If you have prepared a brief opening statement covering those matters, ask the judge if you may make it.

Opening statements and other things the parties say during the trial are not evidence the judge can consider unless they are said during their sworn or affirmed testimony from the witness box. The goal of this stage of a trial is simply to give the judge an understanding of what the trial is about, so they can determine what evidence is relevant to the issues and what law they must apply.

Evidence

There are legal rules about what types of evidence can be admitted in a trial and considered by the judge. Throughout the trial, the judge will be ensuring that the evidence presented meets the requirements of these rules, known as the law of evidence. (See Guide to preparing for a family court trial in Provincial Court, page 6.)

  • Applicant’s Evidence
    The person who applied for a court order (the applicant) will testify, present any documents or other evidence they want the judge to consider, and present any other witnesses they’ve brought to court. The other party (the respondent) will have a chance to question (cross-examine) each witness including the applicant. If a party is represented by a lawyer, the lawyer will do all the questioning of witnesses.
  • Respondent’s Evidence
    The respondent will then testify and present any documents, other evidence and other witnesses they’ve brought to court. The applicant (or their lawyer if they have one) will have a chance to question (cross-examine) each witness including the respondent.

Closing Submissions

After all the witnesses have been heard, each party will have a chance to sum up briefly, explaining what they want the judge to order and how the evidence supports them.

Decision and reasons

The judge will consider the evidence presented, decide what facts have been proven, apply the law to those facts, and reach a decision. They will state their decision and explain their reasons. Sometimes a judge is not able to decide or provide reasons immediately, so they will “reserve judgment” and give their reasons in court on another day or in writing.

Trials traditionally proceed in this way. If neither party in a family court trial has a lawyer the judge may use a different procedure to help both parties present their evidence. If so, the judge will explain it at the start of the trial.

Legal terms used in this article

Affirmation - a solemn promise to tell the truth - it has the same legal significance as a sworn oath

Applicant - the person who applies for a court order or files a Notice of Motion, one of the parties

Cross examine - to question the other party and their witnesses

Evidence - witnesses’ testimony and paper documents, photographs, objects etc. that are admitted as evidence by the judge and marked as exhibits

Oath - a solemn promise to tell the truth sworn on a holy book

Parties - the people suing or being sued

Testify - to tell the judge the facts after swearing or affirming to tell the truth

Testimony - oral (spoken) evidence given under oath or affirmation

Respondent - the person who responds to an application or motion, the other party