June 8, 2023

How to have a productive Case Conference in Family Court

You have a Case Conference in divorce court - how to make the most of it.

What is a case conference?

If you are in Ontario and in family court, the first step that involves you speaking to a judge is a conference. They are called Case Conferences.

A case conference is typically a 30-minute appearance before a judge. This is often the first court appearance where you are dealing with the issues but not typically to reach a final solution.

At a case conference, the judge can mostly only make orders that are agreed on. If one party does not agree to an order, the judge cannot make it. There are certain things a judge can make an order about even if you disagree. That is often such things as making someone provide documents. If you have made it this far in the court process and not provided a pay stub or your income tax, this is where a judge can make an order that you provide those things.

What is the purpose of a case conference?

The case conference can serve as a roadmap. The purpose of a case conference is to see what is agreed upon, what issues remain and what the next steps should be. The purpose is not to argue over who is right and who is wrong. The real goal is to see if there is any way the two people can reach a settlement. A judge is required to see if there is an option there to resolve things, so it is best for you to consider that before you walk into the court room.

What do I do before the case conference?

If there are documents you are looking for from the other party, ask them for those documents well in advance of the case conference and follow-up.

Be cautious about the documents you are requesting. The question is what is reasonable? The answer depends on your specific situation. A self-employed person is required to provide a lot more documents than a salaried employee. A request for excessive documents will not reflect well on you.

See if you can agree on a timeline to exchange documents.

If you are refusing to provide documents, why is that? If it is because the other person has not provided theirs, that is not a good reason. You wouldn’t run a stop sign just because the car in front of you did. One thing to learn early on in the family court process is to read the Family Law Rules (they are conveniently online) and comply with them. Judges will not be happy with you if you are not following the rules.

Agreeing on exchange of documents frees up more time in the conference to deal with the more complicated issues. Remember, you only get about a half hour. That means 15 minutes to each spouse. Not a lot of time at all, so do not waste it.

What can the Court order at a case conference?

The judge at a case conference can mostly only make orders that both parties agree to. If you do not reach an agreement on an issue at the case conference, the judge cannot make an order on that issue. Remember, they can order other things that are not a final determination of a contested issue. For example, if the two of you disagree on the amount of spousal support, a judge cannot make a final order about that at a Case Conference. They can make an order only if you agree. However, they can make orders for things like document disclosure and other things that can help move a case forward.

Coming to court with a draft order that both parties agree on is helpful for the judge. This is called an order on consent. For example, if you have agreed on a timeline to exchange documents, the Court can make that order on consent.

How do I prepare for a case conference?

You will need to prepare a Case Conference Brief, which is a specific form, and update your Financial Statement (see rule 13) if it is more than 30 days old.

You can either prepare a new Financial Statement or if there have only been minor changes, you can swear a Form 14A Affidavit detailing the changes.

A Case Conference Brief is meant to be just that, brief. Give a short background and then dive into the issues. If you have children and there are parenting issues, focus on them first in the brief.

You may want to have someone else read your brief to see if they understand what you are saying. A judge is dealing with several family law matters in a single day, let alone during a week. By having someone other than you look at your brief to see if they understand your position. If they do not, make changes. The easier you make things for the judge to understand, the more productive your conference could be. You have a page limit depending upon where you are in the Province. Find it and follow it. If you do not, the court may not even read your document.

You can contact the Family Law Advisor service to book an appointment to get help preparing for the Case Conference.

Will I have to attend court in-person or can I attend online?

This can depend on the location of the Court. Since this is the first court date where you are dealing with the actual issues, you are typically expected to attend in person.

If you want to request a virtual appearance, you need to make a request to the Court in advance of the scheduled date. Not all requests for virtual appearances are accepted.

What do I do during the Conference?

Of the 30 minutes you are given, and it may be less time, half is for the other party and some time will be taken up by the judge. Prepare to have about 10 minutes to summarize your position.

Listen to the judge and your lawyer. Do not interrupt anyone. The purpose of the Case Conference is not to argue over who is right and who is wrong.  Do not stress if the other party is getting the facts wrong, as you see them. Focus on the bigger picture of what the major issues are.

At the end of the case conference, a next court date should be scheduled. Depending on the location of the court, the process to book the next date varies. Whether the next court date will be another case conference, a motion or a settlement conference depends on the issues.

What happens after the case conference?

Another court date should be scheduled. Without scheduling one, there is a risk that things will continue to go unresolved. Having a court date creates a deadline.

If it appears like you are close to settling, consider scheduling a future court date anyway. If you do not settle you will already have a date booked. Having a date booked can speed up negotiations if you are trying to settle before the next court date.

If you want some specific questions answered on what to say in a conference, how to fill in your forms or what you should be asking your former spouse for, please contact us.

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