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What is a Case Conference in Family Court?

In short, a case conference is an off-the-record, private meeting between parties of a case, their lawyers and a master or judge in a courtroom. For some cases at the Superior Court, and all cases at the Ontario Court of Justice, a first court date or first appearance is a required first step. 

Article Summary
Introduction to Case Conferences in Ontario Family Court
A Case Conference is a Required First Step
Does a Case Conference Appearance Matter? 
Scheduling  Case Conference
Case Conferences Are a Requirement
Consequences if You Miss a Case Conference

Introduction to Case Conferences in Ontario Family Court

A case conference is a key step in the family law process in Canada, and it’s essential to know what it is. A case conference is an appearance in open court where the judge, both parties and their legal representatives (if they have any) come together to discuss the case. The judge’s role here is more about guiding the discussion and helping to narrow down the issues rather than making any final decisions. Everyone involved, whether they have a lawyer or are representing themselves, gets a chance to share their perspectives and work toward resolving disputes.

It’s crucial to understand what a case conference is not. This is not a trial or a motion. The judge won’t be making any final rulings or substantial orders unless both parties agree on something specific. The purpose is more about discussion and finding common ground rather than issuing binding decisions. The judge can offer opinions and suggestions, but they can’t impose decisions unless there’s mutual consent.

A Case Conference is a Required First Step

For some cases at the Superior Court, and all cases at the Ontario Court of Justice, a first court date or first appearance is a required first step. If you have had your first appearance, or if your matter does not require a first appearance, your next step will be a case conference. This is the first time you will speak to a judge about the issues in your family law matter.

Does a Case Conference Appearance Matter? 

Respectful conduct is vital during a case conference. Even though the judge won’t be making major rulings, their opinions can influence the direction of the case. It’s important to approach these conferences with a cooperative attitude and a willingness to listen and engage respectfully with both the judge and the other party. Remember, the goal is to move closer to resolving the issues at hand, and a respectful demeanour can go a long way in achieving that.

When it comes to attending case conferences in Ontario family law, participation is often mandatory. Parties involved are typically required to attend unless excused by the court or tribunal. However, if someone can’t attend for a legitimate reason, they must notify the court in advance. In some cases, the conference may proceed in their absence, but it’s generally in everyone’s best interest to be present to fully engage in the process.

These conferences often take place via phone to facilitate convenience and accessibility for all parties involved. However, in-person conferences at the tribunal are also common, especially for more complex cases or when face-to-face interaction is deemed necessary. The location and format are chosen based on what’s most suitable for the circumstances of the case and the preferences of the parties.

Essentially, a case conference boils down to these three questions:

  1. Who attends a case conference?
    All parties named in your case must attend the case conference, along with any lawyers representing you or your spouse.
  2. Where is a case conference hosted?
    Case conferences can be held in courtrooms or the judge’s office or even through the telephone or video conference, if the judge approves.
  3. Who has the power to request a case conference?
    A case conference can be scheduled by the clerk at a first court date, one of the parties or the judge. At least one conference must be held in each family case. There may be more than one case conference in your case, if you or the other party requests a conference or if the judge orders it.


Scheduling Case Conference

Scheduling a case conference can be initiated either by the tribunal itself or by one of the parties involved. The timing of the conference is crucial, as it sets the stage for further proceedings in the case. Sometimes, parties may request the presence of a tribunal member, particularly when dealing with complex issues or specific orders that require their expertise or guidance.

During the conference, various matters are addressed. This includes scheduling future proceedings, such as hearings or mediation sessions, as well as engaging in settlement discussions to explore the possibility of resolving the case without going to trial. Additionally, preliminary issues may be addressed, and preparations for upcoming hearings are made to ensure the smooth progression of the case through the legal system.

In the Provincial Court, there are three main types of conferences designed to help move family law cases along smoothly. First, Family Management Conferences (FMCs) focus on organizing the case. Here, the judge helps set timelines, ensure all necessary information is disclosed, and might suggest steps like mediation to help resolve disputes early on. It’s all about keeping things on track and making sure everyone is prepared.

Next, we have Family Settlement Conferences. These are more about negotiation and finding common ground. The judge acts like a mediator, helping the parties explore settlement options and encouraging them to reach an agreement without needing a trial. It’s a chance to talk things out and hopefully settle the case amicably.

Lastly, there are Trial Preparation Conferences. As the name suggests, these are all about getting ready for trial. The judge ensures that both parties are fully prepared, that all evidence is in order, and that everyone knows what to expect. It’s the final check-in before the case goes to trial, making sure there are no surprises.

In the Supreme Court, conferences serve a similar purpose but often handle more complex cases. These conferences help streamline the process, ensuring that all parties are ready and that the case proceeds as efficiently as possible. Whether in the Provincial or Supreme Court, these conferences are crucial for managing, negotiating, and preparing family law cases effectively.

Case Conferences Are a Requirement

Please note that a case conference is a requirement before either party in the case can bring a motion (unless the motion is urgent), because a party can only bring a motion on a matter that has been discussed at a case conference.

Essentially, a case conference is held so that the parties involved in the matter can meet with a judge to discuss the case and the judge can give an idea of how the case will turn out. The judge will be able to identify issues that are in dispute, the chances of settling the case, ensuring disclosure of relevant evidence, setting a date for the next step in the case and/or giving directions with respect to any intended motion. It also provides an opportunity to come to a mutual agreement without trial, by exploring ways to resolve the issues that are in dispute.

Consequences if You Miss a Case Conference

Navigating the complexities of family law in Canada involves understanding the various orders a judge can make, preparing thoroughly for a Family Management Conference (FMC), and recognizing the serious consequences of non-participation. Judges have the authority to make decisions on parenting responsibilities, support, and guardianship, which includes determining who will have custody of the children and how financial support will be managed. They can also issue case management orders to ensure both parties provide complete financial information and participate in dispute resolution processes. Additionally, conduct orders may be issued to regulate how the parties should behave throughout the proceedings.

Preparation is key when approaching an FMC. It’s essential to gather all necessary evidence, such as financial documents and parenting schedules, and ensure they are submitted to the court on time. Drafting a clear list of the orders you are requesting from the court, whether it pertains to custody arrangements or financial support, helps streamline the process. Writing a script for the conference can also be incredibly beneficial, as it allows you to present your case clearly and cover all important points without forgetting key details.

Ignoring the family law process or failing to participate can have serious repercussions. If you do not file a reply or attend the FMC, the judge may make decisions without your input, potentially leading to unfavourable outcomes. Moreover, non-compliance with a judge’s orders can result in enforcement actions, which could include fines, additional legal costs, or being held in contempt of court. These consequences highlight the importance of staying engaged and proactive in the family law process to ensure that your interests, and those of your children, are adequately protected and represented.

The judge can make certain orders at a case conference such as orders requiring parties to provide the other with certain documents, an order identifying next steps to be taken in the case, an order requiring parties to participate in an alternative form of dispute resolution (if parties agree) and more. In addition to case conferences, you may also ask for, or the judge may order, a settlement conference and/or a trial management conference.

If you would like to speak with one of our lawyers regarding further issues related to this topic please contact us at (416) 840-1475 or schedule your free initial consultation here