Researching other family law cases

Provincial Court
Supreme Court

Some terms in the Divorce Act changed on March 1, 2021

Effective March 1, 2021, the federal Divorce Act uses terms similar to those in the BC Family Law Act.

  • The terms decision-making responsibility and parenting time replaced "custody."
  • The terms contact and parenting time replaced "access."

Why to look at case law

If you're representing yourself (going to court without a lawyer), you might want to read some court decisions about other cases like yours. (This is called case law.)

Reading about similar cases can:

  • help you understand how the law is applied in cases like yours,

  • give you some ideas about what to say to the judge to support your position,

  • give you some ideas about what the other person (the law calls them the other party) might say to try to support their own position, and

  • help you understand why a judge might or might not agree with you.

When you're in court, you can talk about the cases that support your position.

Read the cases that don't support your position, too. That way, if the other person mentions them, you can say why they shouldn't apply to your case.

Where to find case law

See What the courts are saying during COVID-19 — Parenting for a look at court decisions made about parenting time during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

You can find case law and legislation in a few places online:

  • CanLII — a free database of case law and legislation across Canada
  • The Provincial Court website
  • The Supreme Court website
  • CanLII Connects — articles and information about cases in Canadian courts from several different sources. You might get more results here than you did on the CanLII database.

CanLII's searchable database

The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) website's free database of Canadian case law and legislation is a good place to start.

CanLII lets you look for cases like yours and then read the cases, the laws, and even the written opinions (called commentary) that may apply to your situation.

 

The most common way to search a database is to search for specific words. You can search for words that occur: 

  • by themselves, 
  • as a phrase, or 
  • with other words in the same document.  

You can add or subtract words to improve the results of your search.  

Tip 1: Choose keywords 

The first step to searching the database is to find the right words to search for, to help you find useful cases more quickly. 

Write down a list of possible keywords to guide your search. Your keywords might include: 

  • The main issue (for example, separation) 
  • The key facts in your story (for example, what happened, who's involved, and what's needed) 
  • The relevant legal terms (for example, parenting time or contact) 

For example, if you want to move with your child to another city, "relocation with child" could be a search term. 

If any of your keywords have synonyms (words that mean the same thing), add them to your list. An internet search for "synonyms for [search term]" can help you find useful synonyms.  

Finally, circle the words that seem the best way to describe your problem. Use these to start your search. 

Tip 2: Search more efficiently 

Click the question mark in the Document text search box (see the red circle in the image below).  

Screenshot of the CanLII search home page. The question mark at the right side of the Document text search bar is circled in red.

This brings up some suggested ways to search in that box (see the image below). 

Screenshot of the CanLII search tip pop-up menu.

The CanLII database contains thousands of cases. There are certain tricks to help you find the most relevant search results. For example: 

  • Use quotation marks around two or more words to search for cases where the whole phrase appears, and not those where one of the words appears alone.  

  • Type two or more search terms to find cases where both (or all) of the words are in the case results. For example, type child parent relocate. 

All variations of a search term will appear in the results. For example, if you type separation, your results will include separate and separated.

For more detailed information, click Search Help at the bottom of the page.

Tip 3: Choose the jurisdiction (province or territory) 

Searching from the CanLII homepage will give you results from all across Canada. To search only the cases from a particular province or territory, such as BC, click its name below Primary Law before you start your search.  

Screenshot of the CanLII primary law menu showing the names of the provinces, linked.

 

How to use CanLII 

1. Search for your keywords 

Type your keywords in the Document text search box. Press Enter on your keyboard. 

The results page will have several tabs (see the red box in the image below). The All CanLII tab includes everything in the database that's related to your keywords. The most relevant results will be at the top of the list.  

Screenshot of the CanLII search results header. The tabs for Cases, Legislation, and Commentary are boxed in red

Click on the other tabs to see your search results in different categories: 

  • Cases, which are usually listed by the names of the people involved (called the style of cause), the year of the decision, the name of the court, and one or more assigned numbers. 
    • For example, Smith v. Jones, 2005 BCSC 1234 would be a case from 2005 in BC Supreme Court. 
  • Legislation, showing you laws that are related to your keywords. 
  • Commentary, showing you Reasons for Judgment (the judge's written reports about the decision) that are related to your keywords. 

2. Refine your results 

If you have a huge number of results, add another keyword or two to try to narrow them down a bit. 

Screenshot of the CanLII sub-filters on the Cases tab. The drop-down menus are boxed in red.

You can also filter or sort your results by using the dropdown menus on the Cases tab (see the red box in the image above). Click the arrow to see the options on each filter list. You can: 

  • Change the jurisdiction (for example, you can search all of Canada instead of only BC, or you can add another province or territory to your search) 
  • Limit your search to certain courts 
  • Limit the dates of the results 
  • Change how the results are ordered by choosing one of these options: 
    • Sort by document relevance 
    • Sort by most recent 
    • Sort by most cited 
    • Sort by court level 

3. Read through the cases at the top of your results 

If the description below each case seems related to your situation, click the case name to read about the judge's decision. 

Your keywords will be highlighted in the text and at the top of the page. Click the arrows on the top right of the page (see the red box in the image below) to jump through the text by keyword. Or just scroll through to read the text. You can also uncheck a keyword (see "child" in the image below). 

Screenshot of the CanLII keyword bar showing the tick boxes on the highlighted keywords, and the up and down arrows for scrolling from keyword to keyword in the text

4. Improve your keywords if necessary 

If the cases you find don't look like they could help you, change your search keywords or add some more. Look at the keywords under the name of each case in the search results. And skim through the cases to look for legal terms or other possible keywords. Then, try again. 

5. Check to be sure a case will help you 

A judge's decision that seems to support your position can be even more helpful if other judges have referred to it (cited it) in later decisions. But a judge's decision that was later reversed (changed) by a higher court might not help you in court.  

To be sure a case you find will actually help you, check its judicial history and treatment using the tabs at the top of the case page (see the red box in the image below), if there are numbers beside them. 

Screenshot of the tabs within a case on CanLII. The tabs for History, Cited documents, Treatment, and CanLII Connects are boxed in red.
  • Judicial history. Click History, and check to see if the decision was reversed (changed) by a higher court. (See Canada's Court System to find out more about which courts are higher courts.) Cases don't always have a history. 
  • Judicial treatment. Click Treatment to show related decisions where the case was referred to by another judge.  
  • Click any case names in the results, and find the highlighted area (or areas) where the case you're interested in is mentioned. These might show you more recent cases that are similar to yours. 
  • Read the cases carefully to make sure they'll help you and not the other person. 
You can cite (refer to) any case law in any court (even cases from other provinces). But some cases will be more helpful to your case than others. The higher the court that made a decision, and the more times a decision is cited, the more persuasive a court in BC might find it. 
Resource

The National Self-Represented Litigants Project has publications about using CanLII on their website.

Take your time

It can take some time to find what you're looking for, so be patient.