BC Provincial Court Family Case Process: 7 Steps

Separated parents in British Columbia are strongly encouraged to agree on parenting arrangements on their own or through an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) method. If you're not able to agree, you'll have to go to court.

Provincial Court can hear cases for guardianship of a child, parenting arrangements, spousal and child support, and nonguardian contact with a child. The court also handles all child protection matters. If you want a divorce, you must go to Supreme Court.

These are the main steps to getting parenting and child support orders in Provincial Court when you can't agree. They may vary slightly depending on your case.

If you reach an agreement any point, you don't have to follow the remaining steps. But if you'd like the terms to be legally enforceable, you'll need to file your agreement with the court.

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Step 1: Determine your type of court registry

A court registry is essentially a court's front office. It serves the public and stores case documents. You'll start a case in the registry that is closest to where your child primarily lives.

There are three types of court registries in BC. The type that handles your case affects the steps you'll have to take.

If you have an emergency or other special circumstances, you may be exempt from meeting the registry requirements.

Possible step: Request an urgent orders hearing

If there's an emergency — for example, one parent trying to move with the child — you can apply for an urgent order before you ask for a parenting or contact order.

If the court determines your matter is urgent, you'll appear before the judge to tell them why you should get the order. The hearing might happen without the other parent present if informing them of your request could put you or your child in danger. You'll get an order if the judge finds it's needed.

Possible step: Look for an early resolution (Surrey & Victoria)

Parents who have started a case in the Surrey or Victoria court registry need to go through the early resolution process before they can ask for a parenting order or any other type of family law order. The required steps are:

  • Meeting individually with a family justice counsellor for a needs assessment
  • Completing a Parenting After Separation course individually (See Step 3 for details.)
  • Going to an ADR session if appropriate (e.g., if there's no family violence)

For your ADR method, you can choose mediation, collaborative law, or facilitated negotiation with a child support officer.

Mediation with a family justice counsellor and facilitated negotiation with a child support officer are free through Family Justice Centers. Family justice counsellors also provide free mediation at Justice Access Centres. Additionally, the Access Pro Bono Mediation Project offers free mediation to low- and modest-income parents.

Step 2: Apply for a family law order

To ask the court for a parenting order, file an application. If you live in an early resolution registry, you'll file a Notice to Resolve instead.

You can also request interim orders for parenting time and child support. You'll get these more quickly than final orders. While interim orders are designed to be temporary, many parents end their court cases once they receive them.

Your case won't officially begin until an adult who is not involved in it gives copies of your paperwork to the other parent. The other parent will have 30 days to respond.

Step 3: Attend a Parenting After Separation course

Skip this step if you started a case in Surrey or Victoria since you should have already attended this course.

If you started a case in a family justice or parenting education registry, you must attend a free online Parenting After Separation class at this stage. (There is also a class specifically for indigenous families.)

You may be exempt if your case involves:

  • Protection orders
  • Relocation
  • Enforcement of a court order
  • Priority parenting matters (e.g., a parent threatening to take the child)
  • Issues that make you unable to take the course (e.g., illness, illiteracy)

Anyone who completed the course in the past two years is also exempt.

Through the course, parents learn about family law, agreements and going to court. They also learn strategies for making parenting decisions together. The course lasts three to four hours total over one or more sessions.

You must file a Certificate of Class Completion before the court will give you a date for a family management conference. If you're exempt from taking the course, fill out and file a Notice of Exemption from Parenting Education Program instead.

In family justice registries, each parent must also meet one-on-one with a family justice counsellor for a needs assessment. The counsellor will speak with you to figure out your legal and nonlegal needs, e.g., protection from family violence. Ideally, you'll do this after taking the parenting course.

Step 4: Go to a family management conference

At a family management conference, the judge gets acquainted with your case (e.g., reviews your affidavits and evidence) and discusses with you both the potential of settling.

You can prepare for the conference by writing a script so you know what to say to the judge and by starting to plan evidence for trial. If the judge sets trial dates, you'll give an estimate of how much time you'll need.

Consider preparing a parenting plan and filing it in an affidavit to show your ideal parenting arrangement and why you believe it would be best for the children.

The conference is informal and usually lasts 20 to 60 minutes. Lawyers can attend with their clients. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may have a free family duty counsel attend with you. If you don't attend the conference, it can proceed without you and a judge can still make interim orders in your absence.

If parents reach an agreement, the judge writes a final order and the case ends. Otherwise, the judge determines the next steps in the case. The judge can:

  • Make interim orders or set a hearing date for deciding them
  • Advise parents to try mediation or another ADR method
  • Suggest parents go to individual counselling
  • Schedule another family management conference to see how the matter is progressing
  • Schedule a family settlement conference (more below)
  • Set a trial date and make orders for exchanging documents

If the judge hears your request for an interim order at the conference, you will have to present evidence to show why your proposed arrangement is in the child's best interest. You should email the court any evidence you didn't file in an earlier affidavit.

Step 5: Discovery

During discovery, parents exchange documents and other information as requested by one another. Each parent must participate fully and honestly.

While discovery is most commonly used to prepare for an interim orders hearing or a trial, it can also help you better understand the other parent's position and potentially reach an agreement.

Discovery can start soon after a case begins and last until trial.

Possible step: Go to an interim orders hearing

You'll have an interim orders hearing if you requested an interim order and your request wasn't determined at the family management conference.

At the hearing, the parent who requested the order presents evidence to show why what they're requesting is in the child's best interest. The other parent has a chance to counter with what they think is best. The judge makes a decision based on what they've heard.

Parents commonly exit the court process after receiving interim orders and treat the court's decision as final.

Possible step: Attend a family settlement conference

The judge can schedule a family settlement conference if they believe there's a realistic chance that your case will still settle.

Each parent will have the chance to speak uninterrupted about what they believe would be best for the child. You can bring a proposed parenting plan and other documents to support your opinion. Bring copies for the other parent.

Outside of trial, this is the only chance parents have to question one another while under oath. The judge may ask questions, too.

If you reach an agreement, the court reporter will write the terms into the conference record, which becomes your court order.

If there's no agreement, you may get a trial date at the conference. But you'll have to go to a trial preparation conference to get a date if your case has many witnesses or is otherwise complex.

If you end up going to trial, a different judge will oversee it, and you won't be able to use any of the information you learned at the settlement conference there.

Possible step: Have a trial preparation conference

A judge may order you to attend a conference to make sure both parents are ready for trial. You'll go over your witnesses, the rules for trial and more.

At least seven days before your conference, turn in a Trial Readiness Statement and serve it to the other parent.

If your lawyer attends for you, you'll have to be available to answer a call in case the court wants to give instruction directly or hear from you. It's best that you attend.

Step 6: Go to trial

Trial is the last resort when parents can't reach an agreement.

At trial, each parent has time to explain their stance and question witnesses.

The duration of a trial depends on the number of witnesses and the complexity of the case. Trials with few matters in dispute can resolve within a single day, while others may take up to 10 days.

The judge makes a decision based on what they've heard. They may announce it on the day of trial or in the coming days.

Step 7: Get a final parenting order

After the trial, you'll get a parenting order. It will include a parenting plan if you requested one. You'll have 40 days to appeal the order if you believe the judge made a legal error.

At a later date, you can ask the court to modify your order (also called varying the order) if there is a significant change in circumstances.

Throughout your case

During the court process, you may need to create a parenting time schedule, write a parenting plan, draft keep a log of interactions with the other parent and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of this in one place.

With customizable parenting calendars, a parenting plan template, a digital journal and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to parenting in two households.

Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.

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