What is a Family Settlement Conference?
At your family management conference, the judge can decide that you and the other person must attend a family settlement conference (FSC). A judge will order an FSC if they think it’s possible that the two of you can find a way to agree on your issues before going to court for a trial. If you can't agree, the FSC is an opportunity to plan for trial.
An FSC is a meeting with you, the other person, a judge, and your lawyers (if you have them). You can bring a support person with you (such as a friend, family member, or advocate) if a judge gives permission. Usually, the other person in your case also has to agree to this.
At an FSC, a judge will talk with you both about the family law issues you can and can’t agree on. These might include parenting arrangements such as where the children will live and who will make what decisions about the children. It can also include issues like child and spousal support, moving with the children, and parenting schedules. The judge will try to help you resolve some or all of your issues.
What happens at the FSC?
FSCs are typically held by phone or by audio- or video-conference. (If you want to have the conference in person, you need to make an application to a judge.)
During the conference, the judge will give each of you a chance to talk without any interruption. The judge may ask questions and may allow you or your lawyer to ask questions. Sometimes, the judge will point out the strong and weak parts of your cases to encourage both of you to settle.
The FSC is confidential, which means that neither of you can repeat what the other person said at the conference to a trial judge later. This helps you both to speak freely at the FSC.
What can a judge do at an FSC?
The judge can try to find out information that might help resolve your issues. The judge can act as a mediator to help you reach an agreement on some or all of your family issues. They usually won’t make decisions on family issues that you and the other person don’t agree on. But, they might tell you their opinion about what the outcome of a hearing or trial will be.
If you can agree on all the issues, the judge can make a consent order and you won’t need to go to trial. What you have agreed on will be recorded in a form called a Family Settlement Conference Record. The registry will prepare the record and send it to you. The record becomes part of the court file and has the same effect as a court order.
If you don’t reach an agreement
If you don’t settle your issues at the FSC (or if other evidence is required to decide the issues), the judge can schedule a trial. Usually, a different judge will conduct the trial.
The FSC judge will see which matters need to be cleared up before trial. They will also try to find out information that could reduce the amount of time needed for the trial. The judge will ask questions to help figure out how long the trial might be and when a trial date can be set. They’ll want to know, for example, how many witnesses you’ll call, how each witness can best give their evidence, and what each witness will testify about.
The judge can also make orders to help you and the other person get organized and to prepare for trial. They can make orders for you to exchange copies of documents (such as financial information) and other evidence. And you can ask the judge questions about how to best to present your evidence at the trial.
While trials are generally expected to be held in person, the FSC judge can decide if a trial ― or part of it ― will proceed differently (by written evidence, phone, audio- or video-conference, or some combination of these methods). They can also make conduct orders (telling a person they can or can’t do certain things).
Usually, you will be told to attend a trial preparation conference before your trial. Or, a judge could order you and the other person to go to:
- a family dispute resolution professional,
- another family settlement conference, or
- another type of court appearance.
What happens if someone doesn't show up for the FSC?
If you or the other person doesn't attend:
- the FSC can still go ahead, and
- the judge can still make orders to help manage your case and prepare for a hearing or trial.
Orders that are made when you or the other person aren’t there still have to be followed. The person who wasn’t there can make an application to change any orders they don't agree with.
How to prepare for an FSC
As with any court appearance, it's important to prepare well for the conference. Before the FSC, take some time to write down what you believe are the facts. Look over the issues in the Application and the Reply, write down the issues you both agree on, how you think the other issues should be resolved, and think about what evidence you need to back up your position.
If there are children involved, you must think about what decisions would be in their best interests. On issues affecting children, the judge only considers the children’s best interests.
Try to think of solutions that will be in the children's best interests and that work for both of you. If you can reach an agreement on even some of the issues at the conference, the judge can make a consent order about them and you won’t need to discuss them at the trial.
Before the conference:
- gather any relevant documents, reports, photos, and other evidence you’ll need to need to support your position at the FSC, and if you go to trial. If you can, make copies for the other party and the judge;
- make a list of witnesses (including any expert witnesses), a summary of what each witness will say, and a time estimate for each witness;
- decide if you want to ask the judge if a witness could give a written affidavit instead; and
- decide whether any part of your trial could occur virtually. For example, could a witness testify by phone, or by audio- or video-conference? If so, write down their name, phone number, and email address. The judge may allow your request.
Finally, think about whether you and the other person might be able to agree at the FSC about things you aren’t in conflict about. Before the FSC, make a list of these facts. If you don’t reach an agreement on all your family law issues but have an agreed statement of facts, your trial will be shorter because you can give that document to the trial judge and you won’t need evidence to prove those facts.
It’s a good idea to also do some legal research and get legal advice before the FSC, so you understand the strength of your position. A lawyer can tell you about your chances of succeeding if your case goes to trial, tell you about additional evidence you will need, and suggest reasonable ways to solve your issues before a trial.
Being prepared can help you reach an agreement at the FSC. And if you can't agree at the FSC, all your work will help the judge organize you and the other person and get a trial date set more quickly. See the Provincial Court's Preparing for a Family Settlement Conference: a Checklist and What can I expect at a Family Settlement Conference? for more help with preparing for the conference.
Tips for the day of the FSC
- Plan ahead to have the whole day free, for example, by booking off work or arranging child care.
- Wear clean, neat clothing (you don't need to "dress up" or wear a suit).
- Listen politely to everyone at the conference. Never interrupt the judge. Speak respectfully to everyone and stick to your script. Always stay calm, serious, and polite (don't roll your eyes, for example). You can try to watch the judge's expression for clues about how you're doing.
- Take a break and speak to your support person (or lawyer, if you have one) before you agree to anything.
- If you're feeling too scared or stressed to speak or make decisions, ask for a break to talk to your support person or lawyer. Say, "I'm feeling too scared and overwhelmed to make a decision right now. Can I please have a break to talk to my support person/lawyer?"
For more help in planning your hearing and deciding what evidence you’ll need for a family settlement conference or a trial, see Preparing for a family court trial in Provincial Court on the Provincial Court website.