The Case Conference is a meeting of the judge, the parties and their lawyers, if any. It takes place early in the case. The Case Conference judge may try to settle all or some of the issues in the case. If that’s not possible, the judge can make some procedural orders so that the case proceeds more efficiently and smoothly. Rule 17 of the Family Law Rules deals with Case Conferences.
Before the Case Conference, each party needs to prepare, serve and file its own Case Conference Brief using Form 17A. The Brief will set out the party’s position on each issue. Issues include interim issues (e.g., who should live in the house or what spousal support should be paid while the case is ongoing) as well as final issues (e.g., how much should an equalization payment be). The Brief will also address procedural matters such as listing specifically which documents the other party should disclose.
The party who set up the Case Conference has the earlier deadline to serve and file a Case Conference Brief: seven calendar days (weekends can be included) before the Case Conference date. The other party has one extra day because the deadline is four business days (weekends do not count). Each party must file a Form 14C Confirmation with the court by 2 p.m. two days before the Case Conference.
If both parties are represented by lawyers, the judge may choose to start the Case Conference by meeting only the lawyers in his or her office (called “judge’s chambers”) for a frank discussion. The clients join the meeting a short time later. If one party is self-represented, the Case Conference takes place in a court room. Sometimes numerous parties to other cases are in court at the same time and everyone hears everyone else’s Case Conference.
A judge may remind the parties of some of the advantages of negotiating a settlement, including:
- bringing an end to the emotional strain and the cost of legal bills;
- giving the parties’ children stability and an end to legal conflict; and,
- crafting an agreement that is suited to the parties rather than leaving the decision to a judge, who does not know the parties personally.
The judge may encourage parties to speak very frankly about the case, even admitting to the court that there may be a weakness in their position. This admission will not hurt the party later in the case because there is a rule that the judge who hears the Case Conference is not allowed to conduct the trial in the case. Also, the Case Conference Briefs are returned to the parties at the end of the conference so any admissions made in the Brief will not be seen by a subsequent judge. So if, for example, entitlement to spousal support is at issue, the parties might talk freely at the Conference and acknowledge that spousal support, if it’s payable, will be about $600 per month, but may not be payable at all (i.e. $0). In an appropriate case, the judge may guide them to a negotiated agreement for spousal support somewhere in the middle of the $0 to $600 range.
Usually a Case Conference leaves all or some final issues unresolved so the judge will turn to procedural questions. One of the parties may be planning to bring a motion to deal with an interim or temporary basis such as:
- custody and access arrangements for the period up to the point when the case is finally settled;
- child or spousal support for the period up to the point when the case is finally settled;
- exclusive possession of the family home (i.e., one party being required to move out; and,
- putting the house up for sale including related matters like giving the real estate agent access to the property.
The Case Conference judge may find a date when both parties and another judge are available to hear the motion and then schedule it for that day. The judge might also set deadlines for the delivery of motion materials that are different from the timeline set out in the Family Law Rules. Disclosure (i.e., handing relevant documents over to the other side) is another issue that the judge may address. The judge may ask both sides what documents they need and if their requests are reasonable order the other side to “produce” the documents by a certain deadline.
The judge will sign an “endorsement” at the end of the Case Conference. If the parties settled one or more temporary or final issues, the judge may attach to the endorsement the signed Consent of the parties dealing with those issues and then write “order to go as in Schedule ‘A’ attached” which one of the parties can use to get a formal court order taken out. Once in a while the judge will require the parties to come back to court to continue the Case Conference.
But if the Conference is now complete, the judge may write “all issues canvassed” on the endorsement. The Family Law Rules state that motions cannot be brought (with some narrow exceptions) before a Case Conference is held. “All issues canvassed” means that the Case Conference is over and either party is now free to bring motions.