By Daniella Marchand, Alberta Legal Coach
In the context of Alberta family law, a summary trial refers to a simplified, expedited court process aimed at resolving specific legal issues. Both parties typically agree that there is no need for a full trial on a specific issue, making this an efficient alternative. In the following blog, we delve into the fundamentals of summary trials, how they differ from regular trials, and whether a summary trial may be a good option to consider in resolving your family law matter.
What are summary trials?
Summary trials aim to provide a more accessible and efficient means of resolving disputes. Some key aspects of this simplified process include:
- Focused on key issues - summary trials are often used to address these key matters within a family law case, rather than examining all aspects of the family's history and circumstances, as would occur in a full trial.
- Judicial discretion - the judge overseeing the summary trial has discretion as to whether this process is appropriate for any given case. They will consider factors like the complexity of the issues, the willingness of the parties to cooperate, and the best interests of any children involved.
- Affidavits - instead of presenting oral testimony in court, parties often submit written affidavits outlining their evidence and arguments. Affidavits are sworn statements made under oath, and they serve as a primary means of presenting evidence in summary trials. This reduces the need for witnesses to testify in person, which can save time and resources.
- Expert witnesses - while expert witnesses can be called in summary trials, the process for their testimony is also typically streamlined. The court may accept written reports from experts, and the parties may be required to agree on the admissibility of the expert evidence in advance to expedite the trial.
- Shorter timelines - another way summary trials are expedited compared to regular trials is through tighter timelines for filing documents, the format for presenting evidence, and even scheduling the trial itself.
Scheduling a Family Law Summary Trial
If you're considering a summary trial for your family law matter, you're likely curious about how to get started. In Alberta, initiating a summary trial involves specific legal steps, as outlined below:
- Seek legal advice - before taking any steps, we strongly recommend consulting with an Alberta family lawyer or legal coach. They can assess your case, determine if a summary trial is appropriate, and guide you through the legal process.
- Negotiate with the other party – in Alberta, you are required to try to resolve your legal issues through one of the many alternate dispute resolution processes before proceeding to court. These processes include negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. Wherever possible and appropriate, you are required to try to negotiate and come to resolutions with the other party.
- Attend a case conference – before you can schedule a summary trial, you are typically required to attend at a case conference as provided at Rule 4.10 of the Alberta Rules of Court. In Calgary and Edmonton, parties are often also required to attend family docket court, which serves as a triage, redirecting parties to the most appropriate forum for their legal issues. Additionally, in both these cities you will have to attend family docket court to schedule the case conference. At this conference, the judge will use their discretion to determine whether a summary trial is suitable for your case based on the nature and complexity of the issues, the willingness of the parties to cooperate, and other relevant factors. If the parties are ready to proceed to summary trial, the Justice may set a date for the trial and provide the parties with any necessary pre-trial steps, like filing deadlines. If you are directed to summary trial from the case conference, you will still have to file an application for summary trial.
- File and serve your application - if you and the other party are directed to proceed with a summary trial, you will need to file an application with the court. Once your application has been filed, you must ensure that the other party is properly served with a copy of that application and any supporting documents. Service must comply with the rules and procedures of the court. Service of an application is necessary to ensure that the other party has received proper notice of the summary trial being scheduled, and the date and time it has been scheduled for. If you have further questions about proper service, check out our blog on service here.
- Prepare for trial - prior to the summary trial, both parties will need to prepare their case. This includes gathering evidence, preparing affidavits, and ensuring that all necessary documentation is in order.
- Day of trial - on the scheduled date, the summary trial will take place. Unlike a full trial, which involves extensive oral testimony, summary trials often rely on written affidavits as evidence. The judge will consider the evidence presented and make a decision on the family law matter. It should be noted that you will be expected to attend in person unless you get prior permission to attend virtually. It is likely that the court will have reviewed all previously filed materials, and the day of the trial will be focused primarily on the arguments of the Parties, and any questions the court may have as it relates to the evidence or the arguments.
- Judgment - after the summary trial, the judge will render a judgment that outlines their decision on the family law issue. This judgment is legally binding, and both parties must comply with it.
Why might my matter not be suitable for summary trial?
Several factors can make a family law matter unsuitable for a summary trial in Alberta. While summary trials can be more efficient for certain cases, they may not be appropriate for all situations. Here are some reasons why your matter might not be suitable for a summary trial:
- Complexity of the issues - if your family law matter is complex and involves numerous legal and factual issues, it may not be conducive to a summary trial. Cases with intricate financial arrangements, property division, or multiple, interrelated disputes may require a full trial to allow for a comprehensive examination of all the issues.
- Need for extensive testimony - summary trials rely heavily on written affidavits as evidence. If your case necessitates the examination of numerous witnesses or complex oral testimony, it may not be well-suited for a summary trial. A full trial allows for more extensive examination and cross-examination of witnesses.
- Significant dispute over facts - if there is a substantial dispute over key facts in the case, a summary trial may not provide sufficient opportunity for the court to assess the credibility of witnesses and weigh conflicting evidence thoroughly. If questioning has not yet been conducted, and credibility is an issue, this may need to be completed before a summary trial could be scheduled.
How is a summary trial different than a regular trial?
In Alberta, summary trials and regular trials differ substantially in their procedures, complexity, and scope. Below are some of the key differences between the two:
Nature and Complexity
Summary trials are designed for less complex family law matters where the issues are relatively straightforward and can be resolved with a more streamlined process. They often rely on written affidavits as evidence and do not involve extensive oral testimony.
Regular trials are typically used for complex family law matters where there are significant disputes, multiple issues to address (ie. property division, parenting, spousal support, etc.), and a need for extensive oral testimony from witnesses. These trials involve a thorough examination of evidence, cross-examination of witnesses, and legal arguments.
However, it may be possible that you attend a summary trial on a specific issue in a more complex family law matter, and a decision on this specific issue can help to aid in resolution in other issues that may be more complex or outstanding. Just because the overall matter itself is complex does not mean it is not suitable for a summary trial, but rather, it’s just that the issues may have to be broken down.
Summary trials primarily rely on written affidavits as evidence. While witnesses can still be called if permission from the court is sought ahead of time, their testimony is generally limited. Parties can instead conduct questioning ahead of time and submit this transcript to the court ahead of the summary trial.
In a regular trial, parties present evidence through live witnesses who testify in court, subject to examination and cross-examination.
Summary trials are generally shorter and more expedited, with a goal of resolving the matter more quickly. They are usually completed in a shorter timeframe compared to regular trials.
Regular trials are typically longer in duration, potentially spanning several days or weeks, depending on the complexity of the case and the court's schedule.
Costs and Time Savings:
Given that summary trials are often shorter than regular trials, parties can save time and money throughout the process, making them a preferred option for cases that can be resolved with fewer resources.
Regular trials tend to be more costly and time-consuming due to their length and complexity. They may involve more legal fees, expert witness fees, and court-related expenses.
Considerations for Self-Represented Parties
If you are navigating your family matter on your own, you may be wondering whether a summary trial may be a good option for your family law matter.
Self-represented parties should have a basic understanding of family law, court procedures, and the rules of evidence. They will also need to prepare written affidavits, gather evidence, and present their case effectively in writing. It's important to ensure that all necessary documents are properly filed and served.
If your family law matter is complex or involves significant legal issues, it may still be challenging to navigate a summary trial without legal representation.
Ultimately, the decision to proceed with a summary trial as a self-represented party should be made with careful consideration of your specific circumstances and your comfort level with legal processes. While summary trials can be a more accessible and cost-effective option, it's essential to weigh the complexity of your case, your legal knowledge, and the potential challenges you may encounter in court. Consulting with a family law legal coach, even for limited assistance, can be valuable in ensuring that your rights and interests are protected throughout the process.
How can a legal coach help me prepare for my summary trial?
A legal coach can be a valuable resource for someone preparing for a summary trial in a family law matter in Alberta. Here are ways in which a legal coach can assist you in your preparation:
- Case assessment and legal strategy - a legal coach can assess the specifics of your case, including the issues involved, the evidence you have, and the arguments you plan to make. They can help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your case and provide guidance on how to present it effectively. A legal coach can work with you to develop a clear and effective legal strategy for the summary trial. This includes helping you determine which issues to prioritize, what evidence to focus on, and how to structure your arguments.
- Document preparation - a legal coach can assist you in preparing the necessary legal documents, including affidavits, pleadings, and other court forms. Summary trials often rely on written affidavits as evidence. Your legal coach can help you draft, review, and refine your affidavits to ensure they are clear, concise, and persuasive. They can review your documents for accuracy and completeness, ensuring they meet the court's requirements. However, remember that your legal coach cannot file your documents for you, so it is important that you pay attention to deadlines and ensure your materials are both filed and served on time.
- Evidence gathering - your legal coach can help you identify and gather relevant evidence to support your case. They can advise you on what types of evidence are admissible and how to present it effectively in written form.
- Court procedures - understanding court procedures and rules is crucial in a summary trial. A legal coach can provide guidance on how to navigate the court process, including filing documents, serving notice to the other party, and meeting deadlines.
- Legal research - if there are legal issues or precedents relevant to your case, a legal coach can conduct legal research to support your arguments and provide you with relevant case law and statutes.
- Decision-making - a legal coach can assist you in making informed decisions about your case, including settlement offers and negotiation strategies, while keeping your goals and best interests in mind.
It's important to note that a legal coach's role is to provide guidance and support but not full legal representation. You will remain responsible for representing yourself in court. However, having a legal coach can significantly enhance your ability to prepare for and navigate a summary trial effectively, particularly if you are self-represented.
It's important to note that while the process is simplified for summary trials, it still requires a thorough understanding of family law, the relevant rules and procedures, and the specific facts of the case. Parties involved in a summary trial are strongly encouraged to seek legal representation or at least legal advice to navigate the process effectively and protect their rights and interests. It is essential to consult with a family law lawyer or legal coach to determine whether a summary trial is suitable for your specific situation and to navigate the legal process effectively. The rules and procedures can vary depending on the circumstances of your case. Book your free 20-minute consultation with one of our experienced family law legal coaches today to learn more.