For all family law matters headed to trial in the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, you must first attend at a Pretrial Conference. The purpose of the Pretrial Conference is for a Justice to determine whether or not your matter is ready to be scheduled for trial. Once they grant you permission to schedule your matter for trial, you will be able to receive available trial dates from the courthouse and schedule your trial. If your matter is not yet ready for trial, the Pretrial Conference Justice may direct you to take certain steps with deadlines and schedule you to return for a new Pretrial Conference to see if you are ready at that point in time to have your matter scheduled for trial. Generally even if there are outstanding steps, it is possible to schedule those steps with deadlines and to determine that the matter will be ready for trial once those steps have been completed.
The content of the Pretrial Conference meeting varies widely between different Justices as well as each particular file. Before attending at the Pretrial Conference, each party must submit a Pretrial Conference Form. The Form asks for various basic information such as names, birth dates, names of children, income of the parties, etc. The Form also requires you to set out your position on each of the disputed issues, identify anticipated witnesses, and evidence for the trial as well as think about and indicate issues regarding translators, IT requirements, and other very important logistical aspects to a trial. Finally, each party is required to make an offer to settle as part of the Form. The Justice will review these forms before the Pretrial Conference.
Some Justices use the Pretrial Conference as an opportunity to encourage settlement on the matter. Some Justices will do this by facilitating lengthy mediation type sessions or discussions with the parties to see if they can resolve the file or at least some of the issues.
The Pretrial Conference is also important to discuss any logistical issues before the trial and to set out specific plans for how those issues will be resolved. For example, if a translator is required, the Pretrial Conference Justice will want exact details on who will be arranging the translator and what steps they will take to do so. There will also be discussion of matters such as preparing a book of joint exhibits (evidence to be used at trial).
Another important point of discussion at the Pretrial Conference is ensuring that the appropriate amount of time is scheduled for a trial. There will be discussion of the witnesses to be called and how long it will take to present the evidence of each of those witnesses. It is very important that appropriate length trials are scheduled. A trial that is scheduled for not enough days is highly problematic. When the number of days scheduled runs out, the Trial Judge almost always cannot just continue that same trial the following day as they are scheduled to hear other matters. Because you are in the middle of a trial with that judge, you now have to schedule further trial dates with that specific judge. Judges have extremely busy schedules so this can cause significant delays of six or nine months while you wait for further time with this Judge to be available. This is also problematic because you are not just trying to squeeze one hour or two hours into a Judge’s calendar but full days to continue a trial.
On the flip side, trials that are scheduled for too many days are problematic because they waste judicial resources. Available trial time is extremely limited and there are many parties and families who need this trial time to have a resolution of their matter. If you schedule a trial for two weeks and it only takes one week, you have wasted one week of available trial time. By the time you are in the middle of the trial and figure out that you do not need the second week, it is usually impossible for any other family to use that time.
Finally, the Pretrial Conference is used to set out exact directions and deadlines for steps that need to be taken before trial. For example, even in the most prepared and organized matter, we will want to exchange up-to-date financial information shortly before trial; generally six weeks before trial. The Pretrial Conference Justice will often give a direction at the Pretrial Conference that this disclosure will take place six weeks before trial.
Pretrial Conferences are an important part of trial readiness. A well prepared trial lawyer uses this opportunity strategically to ensure the best advocacy for her client at trial.