Info & Advice

I am attending a court hearing concerning my children –what should I expect?

Nobody likes them, but court hearings concerning arrangements for children are sometimes unavoidable. Divorce or separation can be a painful, emotional experience and emotions often run high, making amicable agreements a challenge – and when parents are at loggerheads, the family courts will step in and make decisions they believe to be in the best interests of those children.

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The welfare of children is one of the two principal concerns of the family law system. But attending court can be nerve-wracking experience. It’s a very formal environment. If you are not familiar with the way everything works, the language and routines of the judge and barristers can seem intimidating. And when the stakes are high – and what is more important than time with your children? – attending court hearings can be an especially stressful experience.

So how you deal with these family court hearings, if one proves necessary? How do you maximise your chances of achieving the result you want?

Preparation is key

The key to preparation. Ideally, work through the different stages of the family court process, the possible outcomes and likeliest events with your solicitor. But you are unrepresented, you will need to do a little research in order to prepare yourself. Compile a chart of the different stages of a typical hearing and make sure you are clear about what is likely to happen after each.

Let’s take a look at the different stages of a typical court case involving children.

The First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment

The First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment, commonly known as the FHDRA, is the very first stage of most family court disputes, including those involving children. It will take place after the initial application has been made.

Depending on the circumstances, the FHDRA will be followed by:

  • A dispute resolution appointment, if required.
  • A dispute resolution appointment, if required.
  • A “fact finding” hearing, if required.
  • The final hearing.

The function of an FHDRA is to examine the details of the dispute and consider whether an agreement between the parties might still be possible. If not, decisions will need to be made as to whether a fact-finding hearing will be necessary or the case can go straight to a dispute resolution appointment, or even a final hearing.

The role of Cafcass

You should expect a representative of the Children’s and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, more commonly known as Cafcass, to attend. Cafcass are required by law to take a roll in all hearings concerning children, in order to ensure the latter’s best interests are represented.

Prior to the hearing they will, in most instances, interview both parties to the dispute and conduct an investigation into the family’s circumstances, including the children’s legal parents and current and future living arrangements. Their findings will be set out in a so-called ‘Schedule 2’ letter which will be submitted to the court.

The Judge or magistrates will work with the Cafcass officer as much as they can help the parties to the dispute reach a speedy agreement of that nature during the FHDRA itself. Meditation may be suggested a route forward if the couple have not already concluded that it would not be suitable for their case.

The position statement

To prepare for your FHDRA, compose a letter setting out your views on the disputed matters. This is known as a ‘position statement’. Your solicitor will be able to help your draft this if you do have representation. Position statements are not obligatory but they can be an effective way to make your case in a clear and concise way on the day, making it easier for the other party to respond directly to your concerns and even agree to your position, thereby bringing the dispute to a rapid conclusion.

If the estranged couple succeed in reaching an agreement during the FHDRA, the Judge may decide to issue an immediate order outlining this, but will only do so if this would benefit the children.

Other matters typically considered at this stage include:

  • Whether the same judge should hear the case at each stage – this is called ‘judicial continuity’.
  • What supporting material will be required for subsequent stages.
  • Whether any “interim” (temporary) orders might be beneficial – for contact with the children prior to the official conclusion of the case, for example. Either party can make this proposal, but it would only be considered in the absence of any serious allegations, such as domestic violence.

Dispute resolution appointments

A dispute resolution appointment or DRA may be held if new reports or evidence related to the case come to light following the FHDRA.

If one is held, the Judge will consider the new material and rule on any resulting steps to be taken. As with the FHDRA, a DRA can function as a final hearing if the attending parties reach an agreement.

Fact-finding hearings

The latter are hearings held specifically to determine whether serious but disputed events and allegations actually occurred – for example, domestic abuse or child neglect. Judges consider the evidence, cross examine witnesses and decide what they believe most likely to be the truth. They differ from criminal trials in two respects: the judges reach a conclusion on the balance of probabilities rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”, and (of course) they do not result in a criminal conviction, even if when they concern serious matters.

It is the responsibility of the person making allegation to prove them at the hearing. The first step will be to send a signed and dated, chronological list of the claims to the court, in advance of the hearing, with each allegation set out clearly.

Unsurprisingly, the target of the allegations will be given a chance to respond, setting out counter-arguments or simply denying the allegations.

The final hearing

As the name suggests, the Final Hearing is the final stage in a family court dispute, the point at the Judge will consider all the available evidence and reports compiled by Cafcass, the local authority and elsewhere, in order to reach a definitive conclusion and make his or her ruling. Judges are required by law to focus first and foremost on the best interests of children involved in family court disputes, even if those are counter to the wishes of both parents.

Typically, at this stage the Judge will issue a binding court declaration called a Child Arrangements Order, setting out the circumstances in which the child or children will live going forward, along with each parent’s responsibilities and contact rights specified.

If you are facing a court hearing involving your children, an experienced family solicitor can provide invaluable advice and guidance.

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