The Basics of the Ontario Family Court System

January 6, 2013
Ron Shulman

Article written by Ron Shulman

Most people manage to avoid becoming involved in litigation in their lifetimes.  But when marriages falter and ultimately end, or when issues arise in connection with the custody of children, people who have to go to Family Court may find themselves facing a confusing and complex legal system.

Here are the basics of what you need to know about the Family Court system in Ontario:

The Family Law Courts – A Three-Part System

In Ontario, some Family matters are governed by federal law (such as the Divorce Act) and others by provincial law (such as the Family Law Act).   But most individual disputes between parties involve a mix of both; moreover all the related court procedure is governed by a single set of procedural directives and specified forms, which collectively is known as the “Family Law Rules”.

So to accommodate both the jurisdictional split on the one hand, and the interplay between various topics on the other, the Ontario courts are divided into three types:

Ontario Court of Justice.  This court hears only those disputes that are governed by provincial (rather than federal) law.  In the Family realm, this includes child custody, access, and child and spousal support matters, as well as child protection and adoption hearings.   This court does not deal with divorce or divorce-related issues.

Superior Court of Justice. This is the general court for the whole province, and hears a broad array of both Family and non-Family matters.   In the Family Law area it resolves disputes relating to divorce, child and spousal support, child custody and access, and property division.  (It cannot hear adoption and child-protection matters, except in limited circumstances).

Superior Court of Justice – Family Branch.  This court – which is sometimes referred to as the “Unified Family Court” – does not exist in all regions of the province.  Rather, it is a specialized Family court set up in 17 locations (specifically Barrie, Bracebridge, Brockville, Cobourg, Cornwall, Hamilton, Kingston, L’Orignal, Lindsay, London, Napanee, Newmarket, Oshawa/Whitby, Ottawa, Perth, Peterborough, and St. Catharines).  Its jurisdiction spans across both federal and provincial matters, i.e. the court is authorized to hear both types of cases, including divorce, child and spousal support, custody and access, property division, and both adoption and child protection hearings.

For further information on the court system, court procedures, and how it may affect your legal matter, feel free to contact our office.