A guide to virtual court for family law litigants


The wheels of justice may turn more slowly during the coronavirus pandemic, but family law litigants are still having their day in court, mostly via telephone and videoconference hearings.


With ongoing restrictions and public health orders in response to COVID-19, most family law courts in the province are closed to in-person hearings, except to deal with emergency cases. That means for the foreseeable future, motions and case conferences will be conducted by teleconference or videoconference.


Like any significant change, the transition to virtual proceedings has had its ups and downs for both lawyers and clients.


The good, the bad and the ugly

While there’s no substitute for a meeting where everyone is in the same room, Zoom videoconferencing is working well for lawyers and family law litigants. In my recent interview with the Canadian Bar Association magazine, I gave Zoom court a grade of B+. On the plus side, you can see all the parties up close, unlike in a courtroom. But it makes it more challenging to read body language, which is important for litigators.


Zoom hearings are certainly a better format than phone conferences, which often have multiple participants, making communication awkward. Parties frequently talk over each other and interrupt to give notice they want to say something. Phone court is ideal for setting dates and other administrative housekeeping, but it’s a frustrating and unsatisfying experience for substantive court hearings.


Another issue with teleconferences is that the allotted time is reduced from what it was pre-pandemic. That’s because family law courts have remained busy throughout the pandemic. In their attempt to process files as efficiently as possible, conferences are scheduled for specific dates and fixed time slots. Before March of last year when in-person hearings were still being held, the courts were more flexible to hear longer submissions, if that was required. With teleconferences, it often feels too rushed.


Phone court difficult for some

Family law proceedings are often highly emotional for the parties involved, and phone conferences can exacerbate that.


When hearings happen in person, lawyers and their clients sit together and easily have a private conversation. It’s more disruptive with teleconferences; they have to listen to the proceeding as they send messages and instructions to me ­and read any I have sent.


In recent months, clients we’ve worked with frequently say they feel like they’re not being heard in a phone conference. Sometimes the client tries to speak only to be shut down.


To help family law litigants better prepare for virtual court, I’ve come up with six helpful tips:


Arrive on time

It’s important to show up on time for your court appearance whether it is a teleconference or videoconference hearing.


Same rules as in-person hearings

Some people find remote conferences less stressful because you can dial or log in from home, but that doesn’t mean the rules go by the wayside.


Judges expect decorum in legal proceedings, whether in person, over Zoom or on the phone. Dress appropriately and act as though you’re in a courtroom.


When litigants are represented by lawyers, their participation in remote proceedings will be limited. But there may be times when the judge asks to hear from you directly, and that’s the only time it’s suitable for you to speak. When you address the judge, use either “your Honour” or “Justice” before the judge’s last name.


If something is said that you don’t agree with or want to comment on, don’t interrupt the proceeding. Send a message to your lawyer.


It might also be helpful to have a pen and paper handy in case you want to jot down notes or questions to reference later.


Check your emotions

With video hearings, keep emotions in check. Over Zoom, the judge can watch you more closely than they would in a regular hearing. If the case involves domestic violence and the judge sees the accused with a look of disgust on their face, it won’t bode well for them.


Victims of domestic abuse need to brace themselves for the experience of seeing the abuser up close on the computer screen.


Limit your distractions

Family law hearings are closed; only the judge, lawyers and the parties themselves are allowed to attend. It’s not appropriate to have a friend or family member in the room with you during your conference.


If you can, find a quiet room in your home where you won’t be distracted. For some, that’s easier said than done. With many children learning from home, some have made surprise appearances during virtual court, but it’s best to avoid if you can.


Prep your tech

A recent report in the Toronto Star shows that two out of every five Torontonians are dealing with slow internet or none or all, which could present a barrier for some family law litigants. A strong internet connection is important and will ensure the proceeding runs smoothly. If you don’t have access in your home, your lawyer can help you figure out an alternative.


Landlines work best for teleconference hearings, but if you use a cellphone, the sound quality will be better if you have headphones with a built-in microphone and mute button.


For video court, it’s important to take time before the hearing to familiarize yourself with Zoom. Test your device, camera, microphone and speakers and make sure the lights in the room are turned on.


Lawyers may find it helpful to have multiple computer screens, making it easier to navigate between the proceeding, notes and messages to and from clients.


Bonus tip

Be patient. The shift to remote proceedings has been challenging for everyone involved in the justice system –– litigants, judges, lawyers, clerks and administrative staff.


If you have an upcoming legal proceeding and would like a consultation, give us a call. We’d love to help you.


Photo Credit: Getty Images

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