Hello to all of you enrolled in or considering the Family Law exam as an NCA elective. In today’s blog I’ll outline my experience with and tips for taking the Ontario Family Law NCA exam which will hopefully help you make decisions around your electives and/or preparation for the exam.
Family law wasn’t my first choice of electives, or even my second for that matter; but it was one of the only electives I was eligible for in my last NCA exam sitting in May 2019. Not wanting to wait another three months to complete my NCA requirements, I decided to take family law despite my desire for another subject. While not an area of law I ever expect to practice in, I am glad I took it and now understand how Family Law is structured in Canada.
Why Take This Exam?
If you have an interest in Family Law practice this exam is obviously for you. But even students with other practice interests may find the subject interesting and helpful. For those with a passion for property or estate/trust law, Family Law is a valuable elective since there is significant overlap when it comes to discussing marital property upon separation or divorce. However, if your interest is in criminal law and you are taking Family in hopes of exploring topics such as domestic violence and assault, you may find yourself a bit disappointed. While discussed in part of one module, criminal aspects are certainly not the focus of the NCA exam materials.
Of course, Family Law is also a component of the Ontario Bar so you will have to interact with the subject matter at some point. If you are so inclined, you can use this exam to give yourself a foundation for Bar prep.
Difficulty and Key Focuses
Generally, the exam is very procedural in the sense that its looking to ensure you understand the legal roadmaps for getting a divorce, separation, and/or support order. When I wrote the exam in May, it was 100% problem questions with little room for theoretical pontification.
I found the exam itself very reasonable. However, the amount of information one needs to master for this course is daunting and sometimes quite repetitive. Since the exam covers both the provincial and federal aspects of the law, it can be easy to get a bit lost in the finer details of the course and draw a clear line between what is federal and what is provincial.
On top of that, the assigned textbook is subpar in my opinion. It is badly organized, highly repetitive, and often confusing as it randomly ping-pongs between federal and provincial case law and rules without proper framing or warning to its reader. I found myself Googling quite a bit to ensure I had understood what I was reading and re-organizing my notes into a more logical flow by grouping topics by jurisdiction (federal vs. provincial) rather than having the information mixed as the text-book and syllabus presented it.
Things to Look Out For
If you do decide to use the assigned textbook, note that a good chunk of the cases discussed in the main text are not decisions coming out of an Ontario or Federal court; while highly influential in Ontario and likely to be followed, these cases are not binding precedent in Ontario. However, often times, the footnote will provide citations for similarly decided cases in Ontario if the one referenced in the main text comes from another province.
More generally speaking, ensure you understand the differences between Federal and Provincial law and jurisdiction very clearly. Understand what types of family break-downs belong in federal court and which belong in provincial so you can easily identify which body of law you should apply to each problem question. In short, divorce is a federal matter while spousal separations can be handled by a provincial court.
Also understand how the courts will calculate the division of property, keeping in mind that the rules apply differently for property owned before the marriage and property acquired during the marriage. There are also tricky rules for more complex types of property like retirement funds and money left via wills. While not always tested, still study this area with care as it lends itself well to examination.
Lastly, be sure you understand the difference between interim support orders and permanent support orders and how spouses can request changes to orders in the event of new information or change of circumstances. In broad strokes, the courts will be more lenient with interim orders as they are made as stop-gap solutions with a temporary duration in mind.
Naturally, the whole course is fair game for the exam so you shouldn’t ignore anything I haven’t noted here. However, I certainly think these areas are ones that are potentially tricky and merit some extra time and care.
If you are looking for resources to help you study or write the exam, I have posted my full, colour-coded Family Law (Ontario) notes on the NCA Tutor™ website. These notes were made by myself during my cover-to-cover reading of the assigned textbook and used to pass my exam in May 2019; they’ve also been spot checked by NCA Tutor’s own Family Law instructor.
As a bonus, here’s a quick course-overview mind map I made during my studies to help me visualise all the moving parts between Federal and Provincial legislation…
Tiffany is an LLM candidate at NYU Law. and a regular blogger for NCA Tutor™.