Estimated Court Costs in Family law

This post is designed to inform potential or existing family law litigants about the estimated legal fees involved with contested court proceedings. These are estimates only – costs will vary from firm to firm and from lawyer to lawyer.

Intake and Pleadings

Some firms will offer a free consultation – these consults are designed to bring potential clients in the door in the hope that they will retain the firm or lawyer offering the free consultation. While the notion of *free* consults is tempting, the first question that I would be asking is why the lawyer involved has enough free time to offer free consultations. Most of the top family lawyers in Ottawa are busy all day every day.

The cost of intake will vary depending on the stage of the proceeding. If no case has been started it should only take the lawyer an hour or two to get up to speed. If you are heading for trial in a week the intake stage could take between two and twenty hours of time – $500 to $5,000 in fees.

Drafting a family law application and/or answer provides the court with the necessary facts and advises as to what issues are in dispute. Pleadings typically take between three and ten hours to draft, dependant upon the level of complexity and the number of family law issues involved. Costs for pleadings should range between $500 and $5,000.

A reasonable figure to assume for intake and pleadings for a standard case is $2,000.

Case Conference

The first court appearance in a family law case is the case conference. A case conference is typically held before a “Master.” The two acting Masters in Ottawa are Master McLeod and Master Roger. Masters are similar to judges, only with more limited powers in terms of what orders they can make. A Master will typically only make orders at a case conference with respect to having the parties disclose documents to one another. They will provide the parties with a summary opinion on the matter before the courts and give them advice on how to resolve the conflict.

Family Law case conferences were introduced as a way of having the parties meet and get an opinion at an early stage, before legal fees are incurred. The hope is to have the family law cases settle at an early stage in the litigation process to get them out of the court systems and to save the litigants money.

In order to proceed to a case conference there are some documents that need to be prepared. These include a case conference brief and accompanying affidavit of service, and a confirmation form. The brief gives the Master a top down look at the case and outlines the orders that are being requested. The confirmation lets the court know that they parties are prepared to proceed and gives an indication of how much time will be spent.

The bulk of the legal fees incurred for a case conference stem from the preparation of the case conference brief and the amount of time spent in court. Drafting the brief will usually take a couple of hours. Court time can vary depending on how long the list is on that particular day. Lawyers and their clients must wait for their turn on the court docket before making their submissions to the Master. Court dates usually take a couple of hours as well.

A reasonable estimate of costs associated with preparation for and attendance at a case conference would be $2,500.

Interim Motions

Interim motions can become necessary if something needs to be resolved at an early stage in the proceeding. Some common examples; interim spousal support, child support, possession of the matrimonial home, access rights, or sale of the matrimonial home. The cost of preparing the notice of motion, affidavit, and factum is usually between $5,000 and $10,000. The court time is usually an additional three to five hours. A reasonable estimate is about $8,000.

Mediation

Mediation isn’t mandatory in family law, but it comes strongly recommended. Any family law lawyer worth his/her salt will shuttle the parties into mediation at some point during the process in order to facilitate settlement talks. A resolution that is consented to by both parties is always superior to one handed down by a third party. A typical day of mediation with counsel will cost about $2,000. This covers preparation time (mediators will ask for briefs in advance), attendance at the mediation and the mediator’s fees.

Settlement Conference

A settlement conference is the last step before the parties proceed to trial. Parties in the family law justice system are required to attend at a settlement conference prior to having their matter placed on a trial list. The settlement conference is always held before a judge. The judge will review the matter and provide an opinion from the bench on the merits of the case. Each judge has a slightly different manner in which they conduct a settlement conference with varying degrees of success.

Settlement conferences require briefs and are similar to case conference in terms of their costs. $2,500 to $5,000 is a reasonable figure to assume, with variance given to the number of remaining issues and how in depth counsel wish to go to encourage settlement.

Trial

For each day of trial, judges and lawyers expect to see two days of preparation. Each day of trial is a ten hour work day for most counsel. That’s $2,500 plus the $5,000 in prep time. The length of the trial will largely depend on the number of witnesses involved. Each witness will typically take a half day or a full day in testimony. The number of days in trial will greatly vary depending on how much evidence must be presented to the trial judge in order to have him/her make a decision. A five day trial would cost $37,500 plus HST and disbursements – about $45,000.

These cost estimates are general and will vary greatly between firms and lawyers, types of cases, and the litigants behaviour itself. There is one thing that is clear however; using lawyers and the justice system to resolve your conflicts will guarantee a result, but the costs are palpable. You have to weigh them into your decision making process at the outset and throughout the course of the conflict resolution process.