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Civil court cases decreased by more than 20% in 2020/2021

Released: 2022-03-10

The total number of cases handled by Canadian civil courts decreased by 21% to 697,320 cases in 2020/2021—down from 881,282 cases in 2019/2020. This decrease occurred during a time when stay at home orders and the closure of in-person hearings were imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, consequently resulting in a significant reduction of civil court cases. All reporting jurisdictions experienced decreases in active cases, however the most substantial year-over-year declines were reported in Ontario and Alberta.

The data released today are from the Civil Court Survey which measures the volume and nature of cases that progressed through the Canadian civil court justice system in 2020/2021. As such, these data focus on cases active during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021).

Distinct from criminal cases, civil cases are typically private disputes between people or organizations. The civil court caseload is divided into two categories: family cases—which generally deal with divorce and separation, parenting arrangements, supports, child protection and various other non-criminal family matters—and non-family cases, such as contract disputes, lawsuits for damages, employment actions, probate proceedings and other claims involving money. It is important to monitor the processing and outcomes of problems and disputes in civil courts to ensure timely access to a fair and effective justice system. This, in turn, contributes to the well-being of individuals and communities and ensures confidence in our justice system.

Civil court caseload decreases significantly in the first year of the pandemic

There were almost 184,000 fewer active cases (-21%) in Canada's civil courts in 2020/2021 compared with the previous year. Ontario had the largest year-over-year decreases in both family cases (-23%) and non-family cases (-31%). Substantial declines in active family cases were also seen in Prince Edward Island (-23%) and Alberta (-16%), while Nova Scotia and Alberta had a significant decrease of active non-family cases (-18% and -17% respectively). Notably, Nunavut was the only jurisdiction to report an increase in active cases in 2020/2021, with 59 more non-family cases than the previous year. Nunavut experienced relatively few cases of COVID-19 in 2020/2021, resulting in significantly less impact on court operations.

Consistent with previous years, non-family cases accounted for just over two-thirds (69%) of Canada's civil court caseload in 2020/2021, while family cases accounted for the remaining 31%. Similar to the distribution of cases in 2019/2020, just over half (51%) of the total caseload in 2020/2021 were ongoing cases from previous years, while 49% were new cases.

Chart 1  Chart 1: Active civil court cases by type, selected provinces and the three territories, 2014/2015 to 2020/2021
Active civil court cases by type, selected provinces and the three territories, 2014/2015 to 2020/2021

Number of new cases taken to civil court way down in first year of the pandemic

The number of new family disputes taken to court decreased significantly in 2020/2021, though the number of family case initiations has been trending downward since 2012/2013. There were 27,714 fewer family cases initiated in 2020/2021 than in 2019/2020 and the majority of reporting jurisdictions saw declines. The overall decrease was driven by reductions in the number of contact and/or parenting, support, and divorce cases with parenting, contact and/or support issues initiated. Increases in initiated family cases were seen in Yukon (+17%) and the Northwest Territories (+6%).

More than 4 in 10 (42%) active family law cases in 2020/2021 were divorce cases. Of those active divorce cases, 71% sought only a judgment to legally end the marriage, while the remaining 29% also needed the court to resolve parenting, contact and/or support issues. The active family law caseload that did not involve divorce applications, included cases with parenting/contact issues (16%), cases with only support issues (6%), child protection cases (10%), other family case types such as adoptions and estate matters (21%) and cases with unidentified family issues (4%).

There were 241,674 non-family cases initiated in 2020/2021, the lowest recorded since 2005/2006, the first year of available data. The distribution of the active non-family civil law caseload in 2020/2021 included lawsuits for damages (38%), contract disputes (19%), probate proceedings (8%), bankruptcy cases (4%), other case types such as civil protection and enforcement (16%), and unidentified civil issues (15%). Similar to new family disputes, the majority of reporting jurisdictions registered decreases in new non-family cases. Decreases ranged from 36% in the Northwest Territories to 10% in Yukon. The single jurisdiction reporting an increase in 2020/2021 was Nunavut, with an increase of 61 (+50%) non-family cases.

Chart 2  Chart 2: Initiated civil court cases by type, selected provinces and territories, 2014/2015 to 2020/2021
Initiated civil court cases by type, selected provinces and territories, 2014/2015 to 2020/2021

Family cases more likely to receive multiple decisions than non-family cases

Depending on the number of issues requiring resolution, it is not uncommon for parties in a case to receive multiple decisions from the court ("disposition events") that conclude either part, or all, of a case. These disposition events include, for example, judgments, settlements and dismissals. Almost two-thirds (64%) of family cases received multiple decisions in 2020/2021, whereas just over one-third of non-family cases (36%) received more than one decision.

Time to first disposition event for both family and non-family cases increased in 2020/2021

The median number of days it takes for a case to reach a first disposition event varies by case type and the complexity of the issues requiring resolution. In the first year of the pandemic, despite fewer cases in the courts, it took, on average, 7 days longer for a family case to reach its first disposition than it did the year before, reaching an average of 69 days. Family cases relating to child protection reached first disposition within 10 days of initiation, the same number as the previous year.

Meanwhile, divorce cases without additional issues reached a first disposition in approximately 4 months (121 days), compared with around 3 months (94 days) in 2019/2020. Divorce cases with additional issues took 119 days, one week longer than the year prior. Both cases with only contact and/or parenting issues (42 days) and those with only support issues (78 days) reached a first disposition faster than divorce cases, doing so in under three months. Though the number of days to reach first disposition for parenting/contact issues was consistent with 2019/2020, support issues took seven days longer to reach a first disposition event compared with the preceding year.

For non-family cases, the median number of days needed to reach first disposition increased from 108 days in 2019/2020 to 133 days in 2020/2021. Bankruptcy cases reached first disposition within 70 days of initiation, one week less than 2019/2020 (77 days). Probate cases reached first disposition in one month (31 days), and contract matters reached first disposition in 67 days, longer (+9 and +10 days, respectively) than the year before. Non-family cases seeking damages, such as motor vehicle accident claims or negligence cases, continued to take over one year to reach first disposition, with a median of 15 months in 2020/2021.

While the survey does not collect reasons for delays or length of time required for a case to go through the courts, general increases in civil court processing time could be explained by stay at home orders and the closure of in-person hearings brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Courthouse closures, where they occurred, were limited and occurred at the start of the pandemic, followed by a gradual re-opening and implementation of COVID-19 measures. These measures may have included social distancing, limits on attendees, enhanced cleaning, and scheduling changes to address personnel shortages and other pressures presented by the pandemic. In extreme circumstances, priority would have been given to criminal proceedings involving in-custody accused and other urgent criminal, family and regulatory matters.

For additional information on divorce proceedings in Canada, refer to "A fifty-year look at divorces in Canada, 1970 to 2020."

Chart 3  Chart 3: Median time to first disposition, family law cases, selected provinces and territories, 2019/2020 to 2020/2021
Median time to first disposition, family law cases, selected provinces and territories, 2019/2020 to 2020/2021

  Note to readers

The Civil Court Survey (CCS) excludes data from Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Manitoba, jurisdictions which are not yet reporting information to the survey. This release also excludes data from Saskatchewan due to data availability. Criminal court cases are out of scope for this survey. Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

As a result of amendments made to the Divorce Act through Bill C-78, there have been changes in terminology used within the CCS as of March 1, 2021. To emphasize the best interests of the child and the actual tasks of parenting, the terms custody and access have been revised to parenting and contact, respectively.

For the purposes of the CCS, civil court cases are considered to be "active" in any year that a court event is reported. Family cases may return to court at any time to amend the terms of a court order or agreement.

There are factors that may influence case length that are out of scope of the CCS. The CCS does not have information available on the reason for any scheduling changes, adjournments or delays in court activity. Some jurisdictions are able to report information on referrals to services outside of court, such as alternative dispute resolution programs, mediation or other family justice services, which help parties come to an agreement outside of court or help them through the court process (e.g., parent information and education programs). However, it is not possible to determine if the programs were completed and/or successful.

Contact information

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; infostats@statcan.gc.ca) or Media Relations (statcan.mediahotline-ligneinfomedias.statcan@statcan.gc.ca).

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