Court operations during COVID-19Because of COVID-19, many conferences, hearings, and proceedings are being held by phone or videoconference at this time. For more information, see:
Going to court can be stressful. But there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself before you go. If you feel prepared, you might feel a little less stressed.
Think about what orders you're going to ask for
Sometimes people come to court and say things like:
- "I want more time with my child," or
- "I want spousal support," or
- "I just want what's fair."
Those things are very general. They don't say much about what you want.
Court orders are very specific. That means they include a lot of small but important details. It's important to be clear about what you really want so the judge has enough detail to make the order you want.
Take some time to sit down and think about:
- why you're going to court, and
- what you hope to get out of going to court.
Once you have a clearer idea about what you want, make a list of what orders you want. Give as much detail as you can. For example:
- If you want more time with your child, write down:
- exactly what days and times you want to be with them, and
- exactly how you'll pick up and drop off the child.
- If you want child support:
- read the Child support page and
- work out how much support you want to ask for.
Show your list to duty counsel or someone you trust and ask what they think. You can ask more than one person what they think.
Make a copy of your list to give to the judge when you go to court. Remember to keep your own copy with you so you can read from it when it's your turn to speak.
Find out what happens in court
If you know how things work, you might feel a bit less stressed when you go to court.
Family court is open to the public. That means you can watch someone else's family court trial to get a good idea of what to expect at your own trial. You might also be able to watch a trial virtually (online).
Phone the family court registry or ask at the registry counter to find out when a family court trial is happening.
A clerk or sheriff might ask you why you want to watch. Tell them you have a case coming up and want to see what happens.
If you watch trials at the courthouse, you can sit and watch for as long as you like. If you watch virtual trials, you might only be able to watch one trial.
Usually family court trials aren't as dramatic in real life as they are on TV. There likely won't be any witnesses or people yelling, "Objection!"
It's more likely that:
- each person will tell their side of the story,
- each person will hand over any documents they've been asked to bring, and
- the judge will then make a decision.
Write down what you want to say
You’ve probably seen lawyers on TV shows who turn up in court and talk without using any notes. In real life, most lawyers spend a lot of time writing notes and working out what they're going to say.
Read the notes you made about what you want. Use them to make notes about what you're going to say in court.
Start by making a list of headings for each order you're asking for. Under the heading, write down what you think the judge will need to know so they can make the order. For example, if you want to have time with your child on school days, you'll have to explain to the judge why that's best for the child. Write down all the reasons it's best for the child if you look after them on school days. For example:
- I live two blocks from Jamal's school, so he can walk to school by himself.
- If Jamal lives with his dad, he'll have a 30-minute bus ride to school.
- I get home from work by 5 pm, so I can help Jamal with his homework and then take him to soccer practice.
- Jamal's dad sometimes works in the evenings, so he's not around to help Jamal with his homework or take him to soccer.
Even if you don't like asking people for help, it might make life easier for you.
Here are some ways to find help before and during your trial:
- Before the trial: Try to surround yourself with positive people who'll comfort you, keep your spirits up, and help you feel normal while you prepare for your court date. But don’t take advice from everyone. They might be trying to help, but only you know the details of your situation, and what will work for you and your children.
- Before the trial: If you're representing yourself in court, try to talk to other people who've gone to court without a lawyer. They'll understand how you're feeling, even if their case was quite different from yours. They might be able to give you some tips and help you feel less stressed.
- If you don't know anyone who's been to court without a lawyer, contact the National Self-represented Litigants Project. They have a list of people who've gone to court without a lawyer and who are happy to talk to other people about it.
- Before or during the trial: Even if you're at the courthouse or in the middle of a hearing, you and the other person can still agree to work things out yourselves. It's never too late. But be very careful not to get bullied into anything. Talk to duty counsel or someone you trust before you agree to settle right before court or during a court hearing. Sometimes people are so worried about going to court that they agree to harmful orders just to avoid it.
- During the trial: You can take a friend or family member with you for support if you're going to Provincial Court. See Can you take a support person to Provincial Court? for more information about this.
Be prepared for things to change at the last minute. That can be upsetting, but try to stay calm and be patient.
The trial might:
- take longer than you'd hoped, or
- be switched to another time or even another day.
- you don't have anything else important planned for the day,
- you've arranged for your children to be looked after, and
- you bring something to read or do in case you have to wait for a long time.
If you have to go to court more than once, you might see a different judge each time. That means you'll likely need to tell your story all over again. Even if you feel you're repeating yourself, try to stay calm.
This material was adapted, with permission, from the National Self-Represented Litigant Project publication Coping with the courtroom.
Sometimes it really helps to talk to someone who has been through this process. You find support in unexpected places, sometimes.