Our Alberta courts have been especially busy and industrious in creating new and innovative ways to move cases through the judicial system and court process in the wake of Covid-19. Most, if not all of these new court proceedings are here to stay.
One of the biggest changes to family law files in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench is the new Family Docket Court. Family Docket Court is a new preliminary court appearance that every family law file must attend prior to scheduling or starting any other type of court process in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. This means that if you would like to bring an application for child support, you must visit Family Docket Court first to be granted permission to file your child support application. The Family Docket Court judge must approve the type of court hearing that you would like to have for your child support application.
To attend at Family Docket Court, you must file a simple form called a Notice to Attend Family Docket Court. This form sets out who each of the parties are, and some basic information such as their income and children’s names and dates of birth. On this form you would indicate that you wish to go to court regarding the issue of child support. A Family Docket Court date will be scheduled and you must give notice of this form to the opposing party. When your date comes, you will attend at Family Docket Court and you will explain to the judge that you have a child support issue and which type of court process you propose is best to deal with your child support application. The opposing party has the opportunity to indicate whether there are any other issues that they wish to bring forward in the court proceedings. They can also make a presentation about which court process would be appropriate to deal with all the issues that have been raised. The judge will then make a decision and sign a form indicating how, where, and when your application will be heard. The form will also set out the deadlines that each party will have to follow to file their court materials. You must have this form and bring it to the courthouse with you in order to file your court forms. The clerks will not permit you to schedule your future court application or file your forms without this endorsement sheet signed by the judge.
Family Docket Court is like the triage nurse at the emergency room. The judge’s job is to understand briefly what type of issues are in dispute and the complexity of the issues in order to divert cases into the appropriate type of hearing. The Family Docket Court judge will also often triage cases into Early Intervention Case Conference (EICC) hearings or some of the other new non-hearing type programs that have been instituted by the court to assist family law litigants to come to mediated resolutions. You can read more about the Early Intervention Case Conference (EICC) hearings in one of our previous blog posts. The Family Docket Court judge does not have the time or responsibility to hear in-depth argument about your legal issue. For example, they do not want the particulars about your child support calculations, when child support payments have been made, complex arguments about a payor’s self-employment income, etc. They are only interested in understanding how complex the application is likely to be in order to determine the proper court procedure.
Currently, Family Docket Court is heard by way of videoconferencing and telephone conferencing. There are provisions in place for parties who do not have the technology to use these methods. I expect that they will continue to hold these hearings remotely for some time if not offering this option permanently. The remote hearing technology is very efficient in that it allows many cases to be heard without a large number of people having to attend in person at the courthouse. It can also reduce commute times to the courthouse for parties and their lawyers.
There are some tips to remember when attending a court hearing by way of video conferencing. It is important to mute your microphone at all times unless you are asked to speak to the judge or court clerk. With often 30 or more people on a videoconference, any background noise in your office including other people talking, or the sound of you typing, is highly distracting to the judge and all other participants on the call. I have noticed that it can often be very difficult for parties attending by telephone to understand what is happening in the proceedings because they do not have access to the chat window feature and they cannot see what is happening on video. It is important for phone-in callers to understand that there is an orderly sequence of events that is followed. You should phone in at least 15 minutes prior to the start of any remote court hearing. The way that each morning unfolds varies from day to day based on the number of cases on the list and a number of other factors outside of the court’s control. At some point, the court clerk will check in all of the callers. They will either do this by way of a roll call or they will ask who is on the line. You should not speak out until you hear this roll call. Often, the clerk has to leave the courtroom to go and get the presiding judge in the back room or for other reasons. I have often observed telephone callers calling out on the phone call and the clerk is not present to answer them at that point in time. This often frustrates the phone callers. You should just remain on the line until you hear the court clerk ask you to identify yourself. There are usually many cases to be heard during any remote court hearing. The court clerk or the judge will call out the cases by name when it is their turn. At that time, you need to listen attentively and tell the judge that you are present. You will be addressed when it is your turn to speak and that is the appropriate time to unmute your microphone and make your comments.
Although Family Docket Court appears to be a simple triage court, the procedures chosen to move your matter forward are very important to the ultimate success and efficient resolution of your family law case. We always recommend that parties retain a lawyer to represent them in their family law case. Retaining a lawyer from the very beginning of your case will give you the best opportunity of setting your case up for an efficient resolution. Lawyers know and understand the court process and we spend a lot of time getting up to date on all of the new court proceedings and procedures so that we can effectively represent our clients.
When Family Docket Court was first introduced, we were able to schedule a date for Family Docket Court very quickly, usually within one week. This was an extremely efficient system. Unfortunately, as caseloads have increased as the province moves out of lockdown, the backlog to obtain a Family Docket Court date has become unmanageably long. We now look at delays of 4 to 6 weeks for a Family Docket Court date. This is too long, and we would encourage the courts to make more dates available. The court should perhaps consider assigning a second courtroom to hear the Family Docket Court list.
Overall, we like the new Family Docket Court as it has greatly improved the backlog of scheduling delays on all other court processes. This is no doubt because the justices sitting in Family Docket Court are being very effective in triaging matters and sending only those necessary matters to the more complex court proceedings or hearings. This is very welcome. We have certainly found that Family Docket Court has helped our clients to avoid unnecessary court applications and proceedings instituted by the opposing party. Previously, our clients would have no choice but to prepare lengthy and expensive materials and make arguments opposing these types of unnecessary or premature applications and other proceedings instituted by opposing parties. Family Docket Court is a very good new innovation by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. It is our hope that Family Docket Court is here to stay although we would like to eventually be able to appear in person for Family Docket Court as we believe that the list would run much more quickly and efficiently if most lawyers attended in person as the pandemic subsides.