Court hearings “In Chambers”: how the courts manage their workflow

Our Facebook post from Monday shared a link to a site that had some laugh out loud quotations from the court room.  Real court room experiences are rarely humorous.  The stakes in court applications are high and the results are far from certain. The expense of having a lawyer represent you in this process (whether you win or lose) can be daunting. In civil matters (that is, non-criminal matters such as lawsuits, divorces, estate disputes, and the like), it can take years to reach a final resolution using only the court process.  Despite the uncertainty, cost and time involved in the court process, the courts are still crowded with cases.

The reality of the court process (i.e., the uncertainty, cost and delay) often convinces parties to settle, rather than go to trial.  But not all court proceedings are trials. It is quite common for parties to need the court to resolve a particular issue in a matter before a comprehensive settlement is reached.  Even after parties reach a settlement, disputes can still flare up that need to be resolved in court.  This occurs regularly in family law matters where the needs and best interests of the children can change over time.  These limited-issue matters arise frequently and the courts have developed a system to manage the large volume that they experience.

These limited issues are normally dealt with in Alberta’s superior court (the Court of Queen’s Bench) when Judges sit “In Chambers”. “Chambers” is a particular type of court hearing – essentially anything that is not a trial. Here are some interesting things you might want to know about Chambers:

  • It takes place regularly:  daily in larger centres like Edmonton and Calgary, and on specified days in smaller centres.
  • It takes place in a court room but it is less formal than a trial: the Judges and lawyers wear business attire instead of the formal robes worn during trials.
  • Evidence is typically presented in written form (in sworn Affidavits) and not given in sworn oral testimony.
  • In “Morning Chambers” there is a  20-minute time limit for each matter heard. The parties (or their lawyers) must both present their argument within the 20 minute limit.
  • There is a list for each day and for each courtroom that identifies all of the matters to be heard by the Judge. The Judge hears each matter on the list until all the matters have been considered and dealt with (resolved, adjourned, dismissed, etc). On a typical day, there can be 30 or more matters on the Morning Chambers list for each courtroom being used for this purpose.  In Edmonton, where we normally attend court, there are usually two courtrooms open to deal with Family Law Morning Chambers and one or two more courtrooms to handle “Justice” Morning Chambers (i.e., matters that are not related to criminal law or family law).
  • If a matter will take more than 20 minutes but less than one hour to be heard (because of the number or complexity of the issues involved), the matter must be heard in “Special Chambers”.
  • If a matter will take longer than one hour to be heard, the matter must be booked on the same list that is used to book actual trials.

These comments apply to Chambers in the Court of Queen’s Bench.  The Provincial Court has a similar approach to trying to organize and streamline its workflow but it is less formalized in terms of policy and more variable depending on the court house involved.

You can see that how quickly you can get your matter heard in court will depend on the kind of issue you are asking the court to decide:  the simpler and more precise the issue, the more likely it can be dealt with in Morning Chambers.  A complicated matter will take more time and need to be booked when a Judge has sufficient time to hear it, which could be weeks or months away, given the sheer volume of cases waiting to be heard. In this respect, getting a court date is sort of like going out to eat: if you just want a quick burger, you can get one anytime, you’re in and out quickly and it won’t cost too much. But if you want a multiple-course meal, you need to book ahead, you’re going to be there for awhile and it’s going to cost you a lot more than that quick burger.

We think there are three “take-aways”:

  1. Avoid going to court in the first place. Try to resolve the matter without having to go to court. A certain result that you participate in is almost always better than an uncertain result that will be imposed by a Judge who does not know you at all.
  2. If you must go to court, still keep trying to resolve the matter outside of court.
  3. Keep it simple. The more issues you have and the more complicated your matter is, the greater the costs, the uncertainty and the time needed to resolve it.

At Patriot Law Group, our lawyers have experience at all levels of the Alberta Courts and in a wide range of court locations.  We are well positioned to assist in navigating the court system in our primary litigation practice areas of family law, estate administration, and civil claims.

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