Going to court can be stressful, especially if you've never been in court before. But there are some things you can do before your court date to make it a bit less stressful.
Here are some tips to help you get ready for a Provincial Court trial.
Find out what happens in court
If you know what to expect when you're in court, you'll probably be a bit less anxious before you go.
See how the courtroom's set up
You'll probably feel a bit more comfortable if you know how the courtroom will be set up, who'll be there, and where they sit.
Here's a diagram showing how most family courts in BC are set up:
The people who work in the courtroom include:
- the judge, who hears the case and makes orders;
- the court clerk, who:
- keeps the family court files,
- receives exhibits (like letters and documents) from witnesses, and
- operates the tape recorder that records all evidence given at trial; and
- the sheriff, who pages witnesses who aren't in the courtroom and makes sure the courtroom stays safe.
Watch a family court case before the day of your trial
Family court is open to the public. That means you can watch someone else's family court trial to get a good idea of what to expect at your own trial.
Phone the family court registry or ask at the registry counter to find out when a family court trial is happening.
In some places, a sheriff might ask you why you want to watch. Tell them you have a case coming up and want to see what happens.
You can sit and watch trials for as long as you like. In rare cases, the court might order that parts of the trial be done in private. If that happens, you'll have to leave.
Know what order things happen in at the trial
If you and the other person (the law calls them the other party) are both in court, this is what will happen:
- All the witnesses will be asked to leave the courtroom and wait outside until they're called to give evidence.
- The applicant and their witnesses will give evidence and be cross-examined.
- The respondent and their witnesses will give evidence and be cross-examined.
- The judge might ask questions or give instructions about the trial process.
- The applicant and respondent will each sum up their case (give a short version of the main points).
- The judge will make a decision.
Get organized: Make a trial book
Lawyers use trial books to:
- organize their evidence
- write information about what their witnesses will say
- write the main questions they need to ask to prove things that are important to the case
It's a good idea to make your own trial book. You'll need:
- one 1" (2.5 cm) three-ring binder
- five dividers
- one 9" x 12" (23 cm x 30 cm) envelope.
Divide your trial book into four sections:
- Trial preparation worksheet
1. Trial preparation worksheet
You'll only need about one page for this section:
- Write the points you have to prove at trial on one side of the paper.
- Write a list of the evidence you're going to use to prove those points on the other side.
- Make a copy of your trial preparation worksheet and put it in the Summation section.
You can use your trial preparation worksheet as a checklist so you don't forget anything.
This section will be divided into four smaller sections. Your evidence is everything you'll use to prove your case in court.
Your spoken evidence: this is what you want to say when you give evidence at the trial. Look at your trial preparation worksheet:
- find the points you want to prove to the judge
- write a detailed list in your trial book of what you want to say:
- your first point has to be a short explanation of why you're in court (for example, "I'm applying for a final family order")
- before the trial, go over this list of points to make sure you're clear about everything you want to say
Your documents: these are the documents (other than your court forms) that you want to use in court, such as letters, receipts, or bank statements. They have to support the information in your Application to Obtain an Order (Form 1) or Application Respecting Existing Orders or Agreements (Form 2). To prepare your documents:
- make a list of them so you can easily check you have everything you need
- make two copies of each document
- punch holes in the copied documents and put them in your trial book
- put the original documents in the large envelope you bought
When you go to trial:
- Take each original document out of the envelope and give it to the court clerk as you tell the judge about it. The clerk will give the document to the judge.
- Give the respondent one of the copies of the document from your trial book.
- Use the other copy to refer to during your trial.
If you're going to call witnesses to give evidence at trial:
- Write a list of questions for them before the trial and put the list in your trial book.
- Read your questions with your witnesses before the trial so you know how they'll answer. If you know the answers ahead of time, it will help to avoid confusion and you won't get unexpected answers that distract you.
A cross-examination is when one person asks the other person and their witnesses questions. It's used to try to weaken the other person's case by making the witnesses' evidence seem less believable or important.
Make a list of questions you want to ask (if any) the other person when it's your turn to cross-examine.
You've probably seen TV shows where people use the cross-examination to "break down" the witnesses and force them to admit that they're wrong. Real life isn't quite as dramatic.
Cross-examination is best used to bring out evidence the witness has that can help you get the orders you want. You might ask the witness about things they haven't told the court that would be helpful to you.
Most people find this the most difficult part of their case to prepare.
You make your summation after all the evidence on both sides has been heard.
- is your final chance to convince the judge to make the order that you want. The other person gets a chance to do this as well.
- isn't another chance to give evidence. You can only refer to points you've already made.
Use the copy of your trial preparation worksheet in this section of your trial book when you speak to the judge to help you sum up what you had to prove and what evidence you gave to prove it.
To find out more about what will happen when you go to court, see:
- What happens at a Provincial Court family law trial? and
- the Justice Education Society's Guidebooks for Representing Yourself. They're about representing yourself in a civil trial, but civil trials follow the same rules as family trials, so you might still find them helpful.
And see our Checklist of information to include in an affidavit or bring to court for more helpful tips about how to get organized.