A Guide to Procedures in Family Court
Ministry of the Attorney General
April 2012, Revised September 2019
This guide does not provide legal advice. It is recommended that all parties seek legal advice where possible.
Ce guide est également disponible en français.
ISBN 978-1-4435-8303-9 (Print)
ISBN 978-1-4435-8304-6 (PDF)
In Ontario, there are a number of reasons why you might have to go to family court, such as:
Unless your issues are urgent, it’s a good idea to do some research on the options available to you to resolve your family issues.
There are different ways to resolve your family law issues, such as:
The Ministry of the Attorney General provides family mediation services across Ontario. Mediation is available on-site in every family court and off-site in the mediators’ offices. User fees for off-site mediation are charged to clients on a sliding scale based on their income and number of dependents.
Learn more about these options, including on-site and off-site mediation services.
Not all of these options are appropriate in every circumstance. For example, mediation may not be appropriate where there is violence or abuse in the relationship. In these circumstances, the best option may be going to court.
Before you choose an option for resolving your family law issues, it is important to speak to a lawyer as a first step. A lawyer is in the best position to advise you of your options, the steps that make the most sense in your case, your rights and responsibilities, and the legal consequences of your decisions.
Information is available to help you choose a lawyer that’s right for you. It is important that you take the time to make the right choice. When choosing a lawyer you should consider contacting:
The Law Society Referral Service (LSRS) can provide you with the name of a lawyer in your area, who practices family law and who will provide a free initial consultation of up to 30 minutes. If you are unable to use the online service because you are in a crisis, you may call 416-947-5255 or toll free at 1-855-947-5255.
The Law Society of Ontario also maintains a list of lawyers in Ontario. You may wish to search for a lawyer near you.
If you can’t hire a lawyer for your whole case, you may choose to hire a lawyer who is willing to give “unbundled legal services” or “limited scope services.” This means that the lawyer provides you with initial advice or helps you with specific steps in your case.
If you can’t afford a lawyer, you may wish to contact Legal Aid Ontario to see whether you qualify to receive legal aid. You may also call 1-800-668-8258.
If you choose to go to court, you can represent yourself, but you need to know that judges and court staff cannot give you legal advice. Only lawyers can do that. People who represent themselves are responsible for informing themselves about the law and the court’s procedures. You will be held to the same standard as people who have lawyers representing them.
The Divorce Act, Family Law Act, Children’s Law Reform Act, and Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017 contain most of the law that applies to families. Some family law is also contained in written decisions of judges, known as “case law.” Certain case law from all levels of court in Ontario is available online.
Every person using a family court must follow the Family Law Rules throughout their case. There is a rule for every step in a case. For example, Rule 8 tells you how to start a case. Rule 10 explains how to answer a case that has been started against you.
In addition to the rules, there are Practice Directions that you must follow if your case is in the Superior Court of Justice or the Family Court Branch of the Superior Court of Justice. This includes a Provincial Practice Direction (that applies to all court locations) and Regional Practice Directions (that only apply to courts in specific regions of Ontario).
The role of judges is to decide cases based on the evidence and the law. A judge’s decision is called an order. Judges must be neutral and impartial and cannot give legal advice or assistance to the parties in a case. You may not contact the judge by phone, email, or mail or discuss your case with the judge outside of your scheduled court appearances.
The person starting a family case is called the applicant. The other person responding to the application is called the respondent. If you and your spouse jointly apply for a divorce, then you are both called applicants.
To start your family court case, you have to complete and file an application at the court with information about:
More detailed information about making an application is found in A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 2: Starting a Family Case.
In most circumstances, you and the other party will be required to attend different free Mandatory Information Program (MIP) sessions. These sessions usually take place at the court location where the application was filed. The MIP provides information on the impact of separation on parents and children, alternatives to going to court, legal issues, and the court process. More detailed information about the MIP is found at A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 7: Required Steps.
Throughout your case, you must first provide to the other party a copy of almost all documents that you provide to the court. Giving your documents to the other party is called service. This helps make sure that every other party knows the current status of the court case, and gives them a chance to respond and tell their side of the story. More information about service is available in A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 6: Serving Documents.
The respondent has the opportunity to review the application and respond by completing, serving, and filing an answer. If you are a respondent, filing an answer gives you the opportunity to tell the court:
Refer to A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 3: Answers for additional information on completing, serving, and filing an answer.
Depending on the issues, you and the other party will likely have to share certain financial information with each other and the court early in your case. You can find more information in A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 4: Financial Disclosure.
Conferences take place throughout the family court process. Generally, there are three main types of family conferences:
Conferences give you, the other party, and your lawyers an opportunity to meet with the judge to talk about the progress of the case and discuss ways to resolve all or some of the issues.
Conferences also give the judge the chance to make sure you and the other party have provided each other and the court with the information required to move your case forward.
A case conference is usually the first time you and the other party speak to a judge about the issues in your case.
The judge may schedule a settlement conference if you and the other party haven’t sorted out your issues after one or more case conferences.
A trial management conference is scheduled only if it is likely that you and the other party cannot resolve your issues and your case has to go to trial. The goal of a trial management conference is to get you and the other party ready for trial and to try one last time to settle your case.
It is very important that you and the other party exchange all of the necessary information with each other and the court before every conference. You do this by completing the applicable conference briefs and forms, serving them on the other party, and filing them with the court.
More detailed information about conferences is found in A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 7: Required Steps.
The court process can take time, so you may want to ask a judge for a temporary decision, before a final decision is reached in your case. This is called making a motion.
In most cases, you must attend at least one conference before you are allowed to make a motion. In some cases, a judge may hear a motion before a case conference if there is urgency or hardship.
The person making the motion is called the moving party. The person responding to the motion is called the responding party.
For example, you might make a motion to ask the judge for a temporary order that says where the children will live and how much time they will spend with each parent. This temporary order would be in place until the court makes a different temporary order or a final order later in your case.
Throughout your case, you will likely need to give different affidavit evidence to the court. In an affidavit, you give the information you think the judge needs to make a decision. You must swear or affirm that the information in your affidavit is true and sign the affidavit in front of a person who is a commissioner for taking affidavits. You can find a commissioner at any family court office for free.
It is a criminal offence to swear or affirm a false or misleading affidavit.
You can find more information about making a motion in A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 8: Motions.
If you can’t resolve the issues in your case, you and the other party may have to go to trial. Trials cost time and money. Most family law cases are resolved without having to go to trial, but a small percentage must go to trial for a resolution.
At trial, you and the other party appear in front of a judge and present evidence to support your claims.
The judge then makes a decision in your case, and issues a final order, which you and the other party must follow.
A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 9: Trial has more information about going to trial.
In some situations, you may later ask the court to change the terms of your final order or written agreement. This is called making a motion to change. For example, you may need to update the amount of child support in your final court order if the person paying support has lost their job or is making more money since the order was made. A Guide to Procedures in Family Court, Part 10: Motions to Change a Final Order or Written Agreement has more information.
There are two factors that you must consider before you start your family case: the right municipality and the right court.
There are rules about where you can start your court case. You must usually start your case in the municipality:
Rule 5 of the Family Law Rules tells you where you can start your family court case.
Not all courts deal with every type of family case, so you have to choose the right one for your case.
There are three different courts in Ontario that deal with family law cases:
The Family Court Branch of the Superior Court of Justice is the only court in Ontario that can hear all types of family law cases. It is located in the following 25 locations:
If you live in one of these locations, go to your local Family Court Branch.
For all other municipalities, you have to start your case in either the Superior Court of Justice or the Ontario Court of Justice, depending on your case.
The Superior Court of Justice hears family law cases involving:
The Ontario Court of Justice hears family law cases involving:
If you’re not sure which court you should go to, call the family court office in your municipality.
You may choose to visit a Family Law Information Centre (FLIC). FLICs are in all family courts to assist people who are involved in the family law process, particularly those who are not represented by a lawyer. FLICs provide people with free user-friendly information about family law and family court processes. Court staff can provide appropriate court forms and general information about court procedures.
At designated times, Information and Referral Coordinators are available to help you understand your needs and to make referrals to appropriate services. The Information and Referral Coordinator can provide information about family mediation and other ways to solve issues without going to court.
An Advice Lawyer from Legal Aid Ontario is also available at certain times. If you meet the eligibility requirements established by Legal Aid Ontario, the Advice Lawyer may be able to give you legal advice free of charge. Before visiting a FLIC, you should contact the court office for information about the availability of an Advice Lawyer.
The Family Law Rules set out the procedures for each step of your family case.
The court forms you will need in your family case (and other important resources) are available in any family court office or online.
If you want help completing your family court forms, you can use the Guided Pathways to Family Court Forms, a free online tool developed by Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) and the Ministry of the Attorney General. The tool asks you questions and puts your answers into the required court forms. When you’re finished, you can save or print your completed forms.
You can also find more information about family law on CLEO’s Steps to Justice website.
The Ministry of the Attorney General’s Family Claims Online filing service enables you to file certain court documents online, at any time, without having to visit a courthouse.
The Ministry of the Attorney General’s Online Child Support Service allows separated parents with non-complex child support cases to establish and update child support payments through an online portal, without going to court.
Learn more about family guides and other resources available at the Ontario Court of Justice
Learn more about family guides and other resources available at the Superior Court of Justice.