Who can help you reach an agreement?
You may be able to reach a separation agreement with your spouse by negotiating directly with them. But if there are difficult issues to work through after you separate, and you'd like help coming to an agreement, there are a few options for you.
Family justice counsellors
Family justice counsellors provide free services for families and couples. They offer free mediation services, and can also:
- provide information about the law and about the Provincial (Family) Court process,
- provide referrals,
- help you fill out family court forms, and
- help you plan a separation agreement.
Family justice counsellors are government employees who work at Family Justice Centres, which are located across the province (sometimes in the local courthouse). To contact a family justice counsellor, call Service BC at:
- 604-660-2421 (Greater Vancouver),
- 250-387-6121 (Victoria), or
- 1-800-663-7867 (elsewhere in BC).
Ask to transfer to a family justice counsellor near you. You don't need to pay for the call.
For more information, visit the Family Justice section of the Attorney General website.
A mediator helps you and your spouse work together to identify and solve the problems that come up when you separate and divorce. The mediator has been trained to help you and your spouse discuss and resolve these problems.
The mediator doesn't make decisions or impose solutions. They encourage you and your spouse to listen to each other and help you come up with ideas for resolving your differences. By doing this, the mediator helps you and your spouse reach solutions that are acceptable to both of you. (If the mediator is also a lawyer, they can't give either of you legal advice, just general information about family law.) If you have children, the mediator will help you make decisions that are in the children's best interests.
Mediation meetings can be anywhere from two hours to all day. Depending on how many issues you need to resolve, there may be more than one meeting. Sometimes the mediator will meet with you and your spouse separately.
Usually, you share the cost of the mediation, but you can come to whatever arrangement works for you and your spouse.
The mediation agreement
After you and your spouse have reached an agreement, the mediator will help you write down what you've agreed to in what's called "Minutes of Settlement" or a "Memorandum of Understanding." Usually, this document isn't legally binding, and it should say so clearly in the document (make sure, if you're asked to sign it). You can use this document as a basis for your separation agreement, which usually contains more details.
Before you sign any separation agreement, you and your spouse should each have your own lawyer look at it to make sure it's fair and in the best interests of your children. This is a good idea because, as mentioned, a mediator can't give you or your spouse legal advice.
For information on enforcing or changing a mediated agreement, see the fact sheet Making an agreement after you separate. All the information in that fact sheet can apply to agreements reached by mediation.
How do I find a mediator?
You can find mediators in several different places. As mentioned above, family justice counsellors provide this service, and they can also refer you to other mediators. You can also check the following sources for information:
- The Mediate BC website — you'll find a list of qualified family mediators and more information about mediation and how it works
- The Family Mediation Canada website — information about qualified family mediators
- The Lawyer Referral Service
Can I make my spouse attend mediation?
If you've started a case in Supreme Court, you can take steps to require your spouse to attend a mediation session.
You do this by serving your spouse with a document called a Notice to Mediate. See our fact sheets Making mediation happen in a family law case in Supreme Court and How to serve Supreme Court documents (for how to serve the document).
For more information on what mediators do, see:
- The Attorney General's Family Justice page on mediators, and
- this video clip from the Continuing Legal Education Society's video, An Inside Look at Family Mediation.
Lawyers do a lot more than help people go to court. Lawyers are also skilled at helping people reach agreements.
In fact, the Canadian Bar Association (BC Branch) has issued guidelines for family lawyers saying that lawyers should try to reduce conflict and encourage their clients to do the same. The guidelines also say that lawyers should encourage their clients to use non-court options and to put the interests of their children ahead of themselves.
But a lawyer can't represent both spouses. That's considered a conflict of interest and is against the rules of the Law Society of British Columbia. You'll each need your own lawyer. See the fact sheet What is independent legal advice?
For help finding a lawyer, see Who can help?
Collaborative family lawyers
Collaborative family lawyers have been trained to deal with family cases in a particular way. In the collaborative family law process, you and your spouse agree to work together with lawyers who practise collaborative family law to find acceptable solutions that work for both of you. Both you and your spouse are represented by your own lawyer. The collaborative family law process is different from the traditional divorce or separation proceedings in several ways, including:
- No court — Both you and your spouse and your lawyers sign a written agreement to work together to resolve your issues without going to court.
- Honest communication — You and your spouse also agree in writing to open and honest communication, including agreeing to openly share information (such as information about your finances) with one another.
- Team approach — Specially trained lawyers, divorce coaches, child specialists, and financial advisors are available to help you, as necessary. You, your lawyers, and your coaches will work as a team to solve your disputes, whether the issues relate to support, division of property, or parenting.
- Four-way meetings — Instead of letting your lawyers do the talking, you and your spouse and your lawyers participate in a series of meetings. Sometimes your lawyers may meet alone to set the agenda for the meetings or to give each other information about you or your spouse that is necessary for solving the issues. The number of meetings required will depend on how many issues you and your spouse face and how complex these issues are.
What's important to the collaborative family law process is that you and your spouse are willing to discuss and solve your separation issues with honesty and respect and without treating each other as enemies. However, since collaborative family law involves hiring lawyers and other professionals, it can be expensive.
An agreement reached through the collaborative family law process is a legal contract.
Tip: For information on making, enforcing, and changing an agreement, see our fact sheets Making an agreement after you separate and How to change an agreement. See also our frequently asked question What is collaborative family law?. For information on drafting a legally binding separation agreement, see our self-help guide How to write your own separation agreement.
Can anyone use the collaborative family law process?
Collaborative family law may not be appropriate for everyone, especially if there have been issues of family violence or child abuse, or if one spouse won't participate fairly in the process.
However, in general, collaborative family law offers you and your spouse the ability to come up with your own solutions, which often means you'll spend a lot less on professional fees than you would if you were to resolve your issues in court.
How do I find a collaborative family lawyer?
To find a collaborative family lawyer, see the following websites:
- BC Collaborative Roster Society (Lower Mainland and Victoria)
- Collaborative Divorce Vancouver (Lower Mainland)
- The Collaborative Association (Lower Mainland)
- Collaborative Family Separation Professionals (Victoria)
- North Shore Collaborative Family Law Group (Vancouver)
- Okanagan Collaborative Family Law Group (Okanagan Valley)
- Collaborative Law Group of Nelson (East and West Kootenays)
The Lawyer Referral Service may also be able to refer you to a lawyer who practises collaboratively.
Pro Bono Collaborative Divorce Project
The BC Collaborative Roster Society offers a pro bono program for people going through separation or divorce who want, but can’t afford, to hire collaborative family lawyers. A team will work together with both parties to reach a settlement that may include a parenting plan and/or an agreement on financial matters and support. For more information and an online application form, see the society website.
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