Skip to main content

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Attempts to reform Canada's family courts have created a patchwork of methods that vary widely from region to region. One key difference lies in the adoption of the unified family-court model, where a single judge, appointed jointly by the federal and provincial governments, deals with most family-court matters under one roof. Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland have such courts. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia, however, do not, and they lean heavily on generalist judges. Here's a look at some other family-court idiosyncrasies across the country

British Columbia

In B.C., a unique designation of court officer known as a "master" specializes in family-law matters, routinely deciding interim-support and custody issues before a case comes to trial.

"They deal with a lot of unrepresented individuals and do a lot of case conferencing," Dalhousie University law professor Rollie Thompson said. "It absolutely works. They get their hands dirty and resolve things."

B.C. has also recently adopted a new set of family-law rules to streamline procedures and encourage the resolution of cases through forms of mediation.

"They are innovative pioneers in trying to get things out of courts," Prof. Thompson said. "What we need everywhere are simpler rules and procedures. Rules have a tendency to be written for the benefit of judges; to make their lives better. But the more you create rules, the more you impose costs on people who can't afford them."


Alberta has moved strongly toward "judicial dispute resolution," a process whereby judges try to settle cases through conferences with the parties.


Quebec has gone rapidly from a system where male spouses held all the legal cards to one where complete equality prevails. The province puts considerable emphasis on mediation and has a strict certification system for mediators.

Like several other provinces, Quebec requires spouses to attend an information session that explains mediation before any case is permitted to enter the court system. If spouses opt for a court proceeding, a judge can nonetheless order them into mediation at any stage along the way.

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia has developed a model of court officer-conciliators who meet with estranged spouses before any other court process can commence. They conduct initial meetings with litigants and gently attempt to prod them toward resolving their differences.

"We have huge numbers of unrepresented litigants," Prof. Thompson said. "Sometimes, if you figure out what it is that people want and you put it to the other person, they're okay with it. Often, people just haven't worked it through."

Nova Scotia's court officers - who are primarily social workers or lawyers - also facilitate the all-important step of pushing parties to provide financial disclosure.

This province lags behind on creating a unified family-law system.


Ontario, like Alberta, has embraced judicial dispute resolution.

Some experts are critical of the province's failure to implement a unified family-law system. "If you're not going to run a provincewide, unified court system, you have severely limited your options," Prof. Thompson said. "In a generalist court, family law just gets submerged."

Nick Bala, a family-law expert at Queen's University, agreed. He said the family bar in Toronto, for example, has steered more and more cases toward private mediation and arbitration in an attempt to settle matters faster and more inexpensively.

"We can't afford to continue with the model that we now have with different judges dealing with cases," he said. "It's inefficient for the parties. It's inefficient for legal aid. It's inefficient for the justice system."