Lots of people who become involved in a family court case have never been to court before and don’t know what to expect. Although the Family Court is less formal than some courts (no wigs and gowns for example) there are still rules and procedures that you might not know about, and the Family Court works like any other court by following rules, and by making decisions based upon evidence after every person involved has had a chance to see the evidence and to have their say.
We’ve prepared some simple flowcharts that should give you a rough idea of how a typical case about children and a typical case about finances might proceed, although every case is different.
You could also read Practice Direction 12B “The Child Arrangements Programme” which sets out the process for disputes within families about arrangements for children in more detail, and Part 9 of the Family Procedure Rules for financial cases (although this might be a bit more difficult to follow). See also leaflet CB7.
We’ve also provided some basic information about care proceedings.
Care proceedings are are court cases started by social services (local authorities) where they are concerned about the safety of a child. If you are worried about your child being removed by social services please read this information. You are entitled to legal aid (a free lawyer) for this sort of case.
Here are a few basics about the Family Court that might help you :
- Everyone is expected to operate on a “cards face up” basis – your evidence (anything you want to rely on) should be shown to the court and the other people involved early enough for them to properly consider and respond to it – there should be no surprise ambushes.
- In cases about money this includes a “duty of full and frank disclosure” to let the court and the other person see your financial figures and paperwork (see our F.A.Q. What is disclosure?).
- But evidence produced for a case in the Family Court must be kept private and should only be used within the court case.
- If there is a disagreement about a particular factual issue that is important to the outcome the court may “find” (decide) whose account is accurate. It will do this by considering the evidence and deciding what is more likely than not. This is called the “civil standard” or “balance of probabilities”. If it is more likely than not that something happened the court will proceed as if it did, but if the likelihood is 50% or less the court will proceed as if it didn’t.
- Although the court will encourage you to agree things at every hearing, and in particular where there are children will try and find an agreed solution the first time you go to court, it is usually not possible to finally resolve things without the agreement of both of you. The first time you go to court is likely to be a “sorting things out” and “working out the lie of the land” type of hearing. It may not be possible for the court to make a final decision, but a holding order might be put in place whilst the court gathers the information it needs to make a full decision (See our F.A.Q. What is a directions hearing?).
- Hearings can often take longer than the time estimate on the notice telling you when to come to court.
- You can usually take a friend to court to support you and if you don’t have a lawyer they may be able to sit in on the hearing and quietly support you (See F.A.Q.s What is a McKenzie Friend? and I need support at court).
- Family cases are dealt with by a single Judge or a panel of 3 (sometimes 2) lay Justices (Magistrates).
There are several ways you can find out more about the Family Court and how it works before the day of the first hearing :
- Take a good look around this site.
- Take a look at some of the videos available on YouTube about the Family Court.
- Visit your local court. The court building is public and although you won’t be able to sit in on a Family hearing as they are private, you could sit in on a civil case – perhaps a Small Claims case. You could attend an information session with court tour through LiP Service.
- Talk things through with a lawyer or other support service, such as the PSU.
- Buy a book about the Family Court (for example ‘The Family Court Without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person’, or DIY Divorce & Separation).
- Do some internet research. Some of the information on the internet is reliable and some is not – don’t be panicked by what you read. Use our list of links to make sure you are looking at reliable resources. In particular we recommend the Advice Now Guides and the Coram Children’s Legal Centre factsheets.
Feature image thanks to Jonny Wikins on flickr. :-)