Family Court Resumes In-Person Hearings

In Ottawa, most family court hearings are returning to ‘in-person’ hearings as of August, 2022, except for certain types of procedural appearances. Unless permission has been obtained from the court, case conferences, settlement conferences, Motions and trials, are now going to be conducted in-person at the courthouse. Trial scheduling conferences will continue to be conducted virtually, over Zoom or by teleconference. Procedural Motions will be conducted virtually, or in writing. While there continues to be the option of having trials conducted virtually, this requires the permission of the court.

It’s realistic to expect that obtaining permission for a virtual trial would require, both the consent of all parties involved, and compelling reasons mandating a departure from the standard of an in-person hearing.  A judge may not consider a virtual trial to be a substitute for an in-person trial when their decision relies so heavily on making accurate assessments of witness credibility on the stand. When parties are testifying remotely, many nuances in verbal communication or body language are missed. Often, it’s simply more difficult to hear what a witness is saying via an online platform.

The pandemic brought about the welcome change that materials for court could be filed electronically, rather than having to file original documents at the courthouse. Previously, lawyers would need to hire a process server in order to stand in line at the courthouse to file documents. Waiting times of over an hour were not uncommon. If a matter was out of town, this added significant additional time and expense to a client’s file simply to get their documents entered into the court record.

Now, the filing of materials online will continue to be the expected standard post pandemic. Documents in a case can be filed by either emailing them to the courthouse, or submitting them through the online portal for the Superior Court of Justice.

Another welcome change is that courts will continue to use the CaseLines platform in order to electronically manage documents for hearings such as conferences, Motions or trials. CaseLines is a cloud based document sharing platform used by courts in the U.K. and more recently, Canada. CaseLines represents an improvement in how hearings are conducted because it is more efficient to conduct a hearing using online document management rather than flipping through binders of paper documents.

Traditionally, parties would show up at a hearing with multiples copies of tabbed, paper documents in hand.  This was cumbersome and time consuming.  An electronic platform allows documents for each party to be organized numberically, so that you can quickly scroll through the electronic binder of materials in order to locate a specific extract of relevant evidence.  All parties, including the judge, are better able to follow along because the electronic binder is organized and indexed.

The change to an online document management portal improves the efficiency of the courts, and also improves access to justice by reducing some of the administrative costs of being involved in family law litigation.