How can I research other family law cases?

If you're representing yourself in court, you may want to research the laws and the court decisions about situations like your own. This will help you prepare what to say to the judge. You can directly refer to cases that support your position.

The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CANLII) is an organization that provides a website with a free legal search database. The database has case law and legislation from across Canada.

Case law is created when judges apply the laws to the cases that come before them and make their final decisions. Each judge writes a document called Reasons for Judgment that explains why they reached their decision. You’ll want to find examples where a judge agreed with someone like you.

While you're searching for cases in the CANLII database, you can also easily link to the laws and even written opinions (commentary) that apply to your situation.

For a full guide about how to use the CanLII database, see The CanLII Primer.

How to search on CANLII

  1. Make a list of key words. The first step for searching in the database is to figure out the right words to use. The right search terms will lead you more quickly and accurately to useful cases. Ask yourself, what is the main issue? (Separation? Support?) What are the key facts in my story? (Who is involved? What happened? What is needed?) Do you know the legal terms that are relevant? Look at your list and see if any of the words also have a good alternative word and add it. Finally, circle the words that seem the strongest. You can use several of the best words to start your search.

  2. Learn some database search tips. To help narrow your search from the beginning, use some standard search techniques. On the CANLII homepage, click ? at the right side of the search box to see the most common tips. For example:

    • Put quotation marks around two or more words to search just for that phrase, not random appearances of the words on their own. For example, typing "adopted child" will keep an irrelevant judgment with the sentence "The changes were adopted to reflect the best interests of the child" out of your results.

    • Use AND to make sure that both (or all) of your keywords are in the case results. Otherwise, cases with just one of the words may appear. For example, type child AND parent AND relocate.

      All variations of a word will also appear. For example, the keyword separation will also bring up separate and separated.

      The database is case sensitive, which means it will search for the word only with capital letters if that’s how you type it.

      For more detailed information, click the Help Page link at the bottom of the tips box or the link to a short video about getting started.

  3. Start your search: select the jurisdiction (location). On the home page, under Browse, select British Columbia, if your case is being heard in a BC court. (Select another jurisdiction, if it applies.)

  4. Enter your keywords in the search box. Enter your keywords in the search box, using any of the search tips, and click the search button on the far right.

    Everything in the database related to your keywords will appear below, in the order of greatest relevance. Select Cases to see only the cases that contain your keywords.

    Important: Cases are generally identified by the names of the parties (called the Style of Cause), the year of the decision, the name of the court, and, depending on the year of the decision, one or more assigned numbers.
    Smith v. Jones, 2005 BCSC 1234

    Tip: You can also select the Legislation or Commentary tabs, to see only laws or written opinions that are related to your keywords.

  5. Review your results. If you have still have a huge number of results, add another keyword or two right away to try to narrow your results more accurately.

    Tip: You can also filter or sort your results by selecting options under the dropdowns. For example, under the All courts and tribunals dropdown, select "Provincial Court of British Columbia."

  6. Read through the cases that appear first in your results. Read the portion of text that appears with each case to see if the information seems related to your situation. If so, click on the case name to view the entire decision written by the judge.

    Click on the arrow on the top right to find your highlighted keywords or scroll to the highlights. You can also uncheck a keyword if you like.

  7. Improve your keywords if necessary. If you don’t find any meaningful cases, you need to change or add to your search keywords. For ideas, look at the keywords the database provides under the name of each case in the search results. Also, skim through the cases for legal terms or other possible keywords. Then, try again.

  8. Check that a case is still good law. To do this, check two things:

    • Judicial history. Once you’ve found what seems like a good case to use, check its history to make sure. In other words, you need to know if the decision was reversed by a higher level court (or affirmed). Note that cases don’t always have a "history."

      Click the + sign at the left of the search box to expand it. In the "Noteup" search box, enter the case name (for example, Green v. Brown) and select from the list of cases in the dropdown. You will get a result only if there was a Court of Appeal decision.

    • Judicial treatment. To find related decisions where the case was referred to by another judge, click "Cited by (number) documents" (if it appears).

      Click any case names in the results and find the highlighted area(s) where the case you're interested in is mentioned.

      If the relevant part of the case is referred to in a positive way, it confirms that it's a good case for you to use to support your position. However, read all the cases in your results carefully.

      Some citations may take you to cases that are citing the case you're interested in but for reasons that aren't helpful to you. Or, the case you find may be even better for you to use than the original one.

      Tip: You can cite any case law in any court (even cases from other provinces), but the weight it's given by the court will vary. The higher the court and the more courts that followed a particular line of reasoning, the more persuasive a court in BC might find it.

For more information

CANLII Connects provides quick access to analysis about cases in Canadian courts from a variety of sources. Simply select Search at the top right of the homepage and enter a case name. You'll be provided with a list of articles of commentary that may be longer than what you found in the CANLII database itself.

For a helpful list of recent court decisions in family cases, each with a brief summary and grouped by topic, see the JP Boyd on Family blog.

For a guide to help you find court records and transcripts, see the SFU library.

Tip: To read an article, click on its title (which is a link).

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