What happens at a Supreme Court family law trial?

Supreme Court

If you're going to trial in Supreme Court and you've never been in court before, you'll feel less stressed if you know what to expect.

Things happen in the same order in all Supreme Court trials:

  1. You and the other person (the law calls them the other party) make your opening statements
  2. You both present your evidence
  3. You and the other person make your closing statements
  4. The judge makes their decision

Opening statements

At the start of the trial, you and the other person take turns to make an opening statement. The claimant speaks first.

An opening statement gives the judge the basic details about why you're in court. You can tell them:

  • your most important issues
  • the orders you want them to make
  • what evidence (witnesses and documents) you'll be presenting (showing) to the court

Here are few tips for making your opening statement:

  • Make it as short as possible. You just want to give the judge a general idea about your case.
  • Try to stay calm.
  • Don't be dramatic or accuse the other person of anything.
  • Don't give evidence right now. That happens later.

Presentation of evidence

Most of the trial will be taken up with the presentation of evidence. The claimant goes first again.

When you're presenting evidence, you can:

  • give your side of the story as a witness
  • question witnesses who support your side of the story
  • use documents

See What is evidence and how do you present it in Supreme Court? to find out more about using evidence in court.

If you have witnesses, you choose which order they speak in.

Every witness is sworn in. This means they're asked to swear an oath or affirm that they'll tell the truth. See Tips for your Supreme Court trial for more about this.

Lying after you've sworn or affirmed an oath is called perjury and has serious consequences.

If you're testifying (speaking) to give your side of the story, usually you'll be the first witness when it's your turn to present evidence.

After you've spoken, the other person might ask you questions. This is called cross-examination. If you decide not to testify, the other person might still cross-examine you.

If you have any documents that you want the court to consider:

  • one of your witnesses has to identify them during their testimony, or
  • you can identify them during your own testimony.

You can use affidavits, financial statements, letters, emails, text messages, photographs, receipts, or reports as documents. They're called exhibits. When you use them in court, it's called entering an exhibit. See What is discovery? to find out more about what counts as a document in court.

For each witness, the process is the same:

  1. First you ask your own witness questions. This is called examination-in-chief. When you do this, you can ask your witness to identify any documents that you want to be entered as exhibits (see above).
  2. The other person can cross-examine your witness.
  3. You can then re-examine (ask more questions) your own witness to check on anything that came up during cross‐examination. But you can't raise any new issues at this point.
  4. The judge can now question the witness. They don't usually do this, though.

See Using witnesses to give evidence in Supreme Court to find out more about questioning witnesses. If you or the other person are planning to use expert witnesses, the rules for questioning are a bit different.

Closing statements

After all of the witnesses have been called to testify, the judge will ask you and the other person to make your closing statements. This is sometimes called giving your summary. It's your last chance to talk to the court before the judge makes their decision.

The claimant goes first again.

In your closing statement, tell the judge what you believe the decision should be, based on the evidence (that is, your witnesses and documents) you presented and the law. You can:

  • review (go over the main points) the evidence you presented
  • point out problems with the other person's evidence
  • say how the law applies to your situation

But you can't bring up any new points.

The judge's decision

After you and the other person make your closing statements, the judge will either:

  • make an immediate oral (spoken) decision, or
  • reserve their decision (decide later) and let you know what it is on another day.

The registry will contact you when the reserved decision is ready. While you're waiting, you can ask the registry staff if they can find out when that's likely to be. They might not be able to find out but it's worth asking anyway.

Often, a judge writes a reserved decision instead of speaking to you in court. It will tell you the orders the judge is making and, usually, the reasons why.

This material was adapted, with permission, from the National Self-Represented Litigants Project's publication Coping with the Courtroom.

Updated on 21 October 2020