What happens at a Provincial Court family law trial?

Provincial Court

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.

General tips

A trial is much more formal than a Family Case Conference. Here are some tips on what to do and how to act:

  • Before you leave for court, check you have your trial book and all your documents.
  • 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 want. If you're having a hard time getting clear on what you want or 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 applicant usually speaks first and gives a short version of:
    • what the trial's about
    • what they want to prove
    • what they want the court to order
  • The respondent speaks next and gives a short version of:
    • what they want to prove
    • 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 it 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 sworn witnesses to testify (see Ask sworn witnesses to testify, below, for more about this) about facts they know first-hand (you can be a witness too)
  • use documents as evidence (see below for more about this)
  • 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)

The applicant and the respondent follow the same steps to prove their case. The applicant always goes first.

In family cases, often the only witnesses are the two people involved in the case. You don't need 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.

Ask sworn witnesses to testify

The applicant can:

  • start with their own testimony (their version of the issue), or
  • ask their witnesses to testify.

This is so they can use their testimony and their witnesses' testimony 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 each witness gives evidence, the other person gets a chance to cross-examine that witness.

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

It's best used to get evidence from the witness 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.

You've probably seen TV shows where people use cross-examination to "break down" the witnesses and force them to admit that they're wrong. Real life isn't quite as dramatic.

It's probably safest to ask only questions that you know the answers to in advance. 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 might ask the 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.

Sort out all your documents before your trial date so you can find everything easily on the day.

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 applicant 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 respondent 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 Guidebooks for Representing Yourself. 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.