Family court proceedings can present a legal labyrinth to the layman. It pays to understand the process you are being subject to.
Taking into account the fact that if you are involved in such proceedings, you are already under some not-inconsiderable stress, the incomprehensibility of the family court system can only add to your frustrations.
Simply put, a family court is a court convened to decide matters and to make orders in relation to family law. They deal with family-related issues and domestic relations in marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships. This means they address such issues as spousal abuse, legitimacy, adoption, surrogacy, child abuse, child abduction and the taking of children into care. When a relationship breaks down, family court proceedings can be called into play to address divorce, annulment, property settlements, maintenance, contact and parental responsibility. Paternity fraud and testing are also addressed by the family courts.
What can you expect of family court proceedings?
As of 22 April, with the enactment of the Children and Families Act 2014, all family matters are dealt with by a unified, single Family Court, with the exception of a limited number of matters expressly reserved for High Court address. Family Proceedings Courts have ceased to operate, Magistrates’ Courts and the new single County Court are not able to hear family proceedings cases.
As a rule, you can expect family court hearings to be of a less formal nature than, for instance, criminal hearings – the barristers may not be wearing gowns and wigs and the style may be less legalistic than other types of hearing – however , this doesn’t mean that the family court should be treated with disrespect; it is still an official court environment.
As a general rule, courts sit in the morning; but, whatever the schedule, it is advisable that you arrive on time and that you always attend any hearing scheduled.
Upon arrival, you should make yourself known to the court usher – he or she will probably be holding a clipboard, and recording the arrival of the various parties – once you have given your name, they will mark you down as being in attendance. If you have a solicitor, the usher will also be able to inform you if they have arrived.
Do not be surprised to find the court environment very busy – courts often operates in ‘lists,’ meaning that cases will be called on in a specific order; or are called on as and when they are ‘ready’ to go on. This may means that you have a long wait until your case is called on.
Your first hearing is very unlikely to be your only hearing – normally it is merely a preliminary hearing where directions are given concerning evidence, statements of case and deadlines for the serving of documents. You should expect to return to the court on two or three further occasions.
The hearing itself will begin with the applicant – the person bringing the case to court – or their solicitor making an opening statement concerning the case and why it is being brought to the court. The respondent – the person opposing the case – will then have their opportunity to voice why they oppose the application to the court. At this point, the judge or the magistrates will ask any questions they need to for any clarification. Both sides will have the opportunity to bring forth evidence to support their case or to call witnesses.
As a rule of thumb, whether you are representing yourself or being represented, always treat court staff, lawyers and the tribunal hearing the case with respect. Particularly when representing yourself, family court proceedings can be stressful and nerve-wracking, especially when faced with the loss of your children or your livelihood or something you feel strongly about. Remember that a calm, polite, controlled demeanour cannot but help your case and command more respect than an impassioned loss of temper.