What happens at a Provincial Court family law trial?

Provincial Court

Court operations during COVID-19

Because of COVID-19, many conferences, hearings, and proceedings are being held by phone or videoconference at this time. For more information, see:

If you've never been in court before, you might have questions about what will happen and what you need to do when you go to Provincial Court for your family law trial.

Here's what you can expect.

To find out more about online court proceedings, see Provincial Court virtual proceedings.

General tips

Here are some tips on what to do and how to act:

  • A few days before your trial:
    • if you're bringing witnesses, get your questions ready for them,
    • tell your witnesses what you'll ask them,
    • check what they're going to say, and
    • sort out all the documents you'll need so you can find everything easily on the day.
  • Before you leave for court, check you have your trial book and all your documents (including your questions for your witnesses).
  • Arrive 15 minutes early.
  • Wear clean, conservative clothes.
  • If you're bringing witnesses to court, tell them to arrive 15 minutes early and to dress in clean, conservative clothes.
  • When you speak to the judge:
    • stand up,
    • speak in a loud, clear voice, and
    • call the judge Your Honour.
  • When you're asking your witnesses questions:
    • stand up, and
    • speak in a loud, clear voice.
  • No matter how angry you feel, don't speak badly about the other person. Only talk about their habits as they relate to your case (for example, you could say "She was late picking up the children three times last month" rather than "She's never on time").
  • Be clear and realistic about what you're asking for. If you don't know what's realistic, speak to an advocate or duty counsel a few days or weeks before your trial so you can be ready for trial.
  • You'll only get what you ask for. If you want child support, ask duty counsel to help you figure out the amount you're owed and then ask for that amount. If you want more parenting time, say exactly which days and times you want. If you don’t ask for something specific, the judge might order something you didn't want.

How the trial starts

At the start of a trial, it's good for the judge to know what you and the other person (the law calls them the other party) disagree about so they can focus on these areas right away. At the trial, you and the other person make opening statements:

  • The person who started the court process usually speaks first and gives a short version of:
    • what the trial's about,
    • what they want to prove, and
    • what they want the court to order.
  • The person who replied (the other party) speaks next and gives a short version of:
    • what they want to prove, and
    • what orders they want the court to make.

You'll likely disagree with things that the other person says in their opening statements, but don't argue about them at this point.

How you prove your case

You prove your case by presenting (showing or giving) evidence. The judge will only think about facts proven by the evidence when they make their decision at the end of the trial.

There are three ways to get evidence in front of the court. You can:

  • ask witnesses to testify (tell the judge what they know about your case) (see below, for more about this),
  • use documents as evidence (see below for more about this), or
  • get sworn expert evidence from a properly qualified expert (it's a good idea to speak to a lawyer first if you want to do this).

Both parties follow the same steps to prove their case. The person who started the case always goes first.

In family cases, often the only witnesses are the two people involved in the case. You don't need to use witnesses if they don't add anything to the case.

If you do use witnesses, choose them carefully. A witness who hates the other person might not come across as credible if they can't hide their feelings while they're giving evidence. This might hurt your case.

Ask witnesses to speak in court

The first person can:

  • start by giving their version of the issue (the law calls this their testimony), or
  • ask their witnesses to give their version of the issue.

This will help them to present their case in a clear, logical way.

Witnesses aren't allowed to hear each other's evidence. They have to wait outside the courtroom until it's their turn to speak. This is called excluding the witnesses.

Make sure the judge:

  • knows there are witnesses outside, and
  • makes an order to exclude all witnesses so they don't come in after the trial has started.

When each witness comes into the courtroom to testify, the clerk will ask if they want to:

  • swear on the Bible, or another religious book, or
  • affirm.

This means they promise that everything they say will be true. The witness is then sworn and can give evidence.

After the first person asks their witness questions, the other person gets a chance to ask them questions. This is called cross-examining the first person's witness.

Cross-examination is used to try to weaken the other person's case by making their witness's evidence seem less believable or important.

It's best used to get evidence from a witness who can help you get the orders you want. You might ask that witness about things they haven't told the court that would be helpful to you.

It's probably safest to ask only questions that you already know the answers to. The person you're cross-examining:

  • might not be on your side, and
  • might do whatever they can to make you look like the problem.

After cross-examination, the judge might ask if there's re‑examination or anything arising. This means that the other person can ask their witness a few more questions to be sure they've properly understood if:

  • a witness said something new while being cross‑examined, and
  • what they said isn't quite clear to the person who asked the question.

Re‑examination doesn't always happen.

Use documents as evidence

Any documents that are going to be part of the trial must be entered into evidence. Documents are entered into evidence by:

  • a witness talking about the document as part of their evidence (this is called identifying the document), or
  • you and the other person agreeing to use it in court as evidence.

If the other person doesn't agree to have a document entered as evidence:

  1. Give the document to the clerk.
  2. Ask the clerk to mark it for identification and give it to the judge at the beginning of the testimony of the witness who'll identify it.
  3. Once it's been identified, ask the clerk to mark it as an exhibit.

The court clerk will help guide you through this process.

Receipts and other items connected with the finances of each person involved in the case are presented when that person's going to testify.

After all the witnesses have finished speaking, the judge will often take a break for a few minutes to give you and the other person a chance to:

  • think about what you've heard, and
  • look at any notes you've written.

Submissions at the end of the trial

After the break, the judge will ask you and the other person to make any submissions that you have. This means that the judge is asking you for your comments about what you think were the most important pieces of evidence you presented to prove your case.

If you think any witnesses weren't telling the truth, you can speak about that and how you think it might affect what the judge decides.

You can end your submissions by giving a short version of the orders you're asking for. This will:

  • make it clear exactly what you're asking for, and
  • direct the judge's attention to each issue and how you want it sorted out.

After the person who started the case makes their submissions, the respondent makes theirs.

After that, the judge might ask if the applicant has anything else to say or if they want to reply to what the other person said. Then the judge will either:

  • give their decision, or
  • say they'll give their decision on another day.

The more you know, the more prepared you'll feel. That might help you feel less nervous.

See:

The Justice Education Society has a series of online guides called Civil Guidebooks. They're about how to represent yourself in a civil trial, but civil trials follow the same rules as family trials, so you might find them helpful for your family law trial.

Wellness

Being prepared ensures that your side of the story is heard and considered. You can do this.