Two-tier family court system creates confusion in Alberta

Despite numerous studies advocating for a unified Alberta family court, such a system seems far off.

Responsibilities for family law matters split between federal and provincial judges

Alberta's family court system has been described as overburdened and confusing due to family law matters being split between federal and provincial judges. As the Calgary Herald recently reported, a study released late last year has called on the provincial and federal governments to work together to create a unified family court in Alberta, as most other provinces have done. The proposal would allow families involved in a divorce and related matters to go to a single court to have their issues resolved. The suggestion is hardly new, yet experts say that the current system is likely to remain in place at least for the foreseeable future.

Divided courts

Divorce is governed by the Divorce Act, a piece of federal legislation. Even though property division is governed by provincial legislation, in Alberta the Matrimonial Property Act, only the court of superior jurisdiction in the province (here, Court of Queen's Bench) can hear and decide these matters. Similarly, for married individuals, child support and custody, during or after divorce, are governed by the Federal Child Support Guidelines and the Divorce Act and can only be heard in Court of Queen's Bench. For married individuals NOT seeking a divorce or unmarried individuals, child support and custody are governed by provincial legislation, in Alberta, the Family Law Act and the Alberta Child Support Guidelines. These matters may be heard by either Provincial Court (Family Court) or Court of Queen's Bench.

The current system has created backlogs and confusion, especially given that many people with family law issues now choose to represent themselves in court. Self-represented litigants often have an especially difficult time navigating the complex system, which in turn leads to delays and backlogs for the courts.

Support but no appetite for change

Unifying the two courts is hardly a new suggestion. Last year, then-premier Dave Hancock also advocated for creating a single family court, most likely under the control of the Court of Queen's Bench, as the Edmonton Journal reported. However, despite the fact that most other provinces have unified their family courts, it seems unlikely that Alberta will follow suit anytime soon.

One of the main stumbling blocks is that the federal and provincial governments would have to agree on a unified system, including which level of government would be responsible for appointing judges and funding the court. Most other jurisdictions rely on federally appointed judges to oversee all family law matters, but in Alberta that would likely mean appointing more judges to the Queen's Bench. Given that Edmonton and Ottawa have been in a long dispute over appointing more federal judges, such an expansion of the Court of Queen's Bench's role in the province seems unlikely anytime soon. Instead, the province has suggested that it will focus on smaller, less controversial improvements to the current system.

Family law representation

Alberta's family court system is, as the above story shows, extremely complex. While representing oneself during a divorce or other family law matter is becoming more popular, it is a decision that is often based on misinformation and a lack of understanding of how Alberta's justice system functions. Many self-represented litigants quickly discover that family law is overwhelming without the proper education and experience to deal with it efficiently. As such, anybody with a family law issue should get in touch with a qualified family law lawyer. The type of experience that only a lawyer can provide can go a long way toward making sure any family law issue is dealt with in the most professional and satisfactory manner possible.

Keywords: Two-tier family court system , Alberta, federal and provincial judges, foreseeable future, Divided courts, Matrimonial Property Act, Divorce Act, Family Law , Federal Child Support Guidelines