The Family Court Process: A Step by Step Guide

If you're going through a family law matter, we understand that it can feel overwhelming and confusing. That's why we're here to break down the process in a clear and simple way, so you know what to expect. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the family court process, covering all the steps involved and answering your most frequently asked questions including:

  • What do the family courts do?

  • Why do people go to family court?

  • Family court proceedings: A step by step guide

  • How long does the family court process take?

What do the Family Courts do?

The family courts make decisions on family matters when families, usually separating couples, can’t agree on child access or financial arrangements. The job of the family court is to listen to both sides of an argument and make a fair decision. The family court deals with things like divorce, child custody, and financial matters.

Family cases are handled by judges and magistrates (volunteers who hear cases in courts in their community). As matters in this area can be very emotionally charged, the family court encourages parties to use alternative forms of dispute resolution instead of going to court, such as family mediation and arbitration, especially in cases that involve children.

Why do people go to Family Court?

Family law covers two main types of cases: private and public matters.

In private cases people go to family court over disputes that can arise from divorces or separations and might involve decisions about where the children will live, visitation arrangements, schooling, or even if a parent can relocate abroad with the children. These cases can also involve other family members like grandparents.

Public cases happen when local authorities step in to protect children who are facing harm in their parents' care. These cases can lead to actions such as removing the children from their parents' custody and possibly leading to adoption. Family judges handle these cases as well.

The Family Court Process: Step by Step

The family court process begins when someone files an application. Before they can do this, all parties involved must attend a MIAM (Mediation Information & Assessment meeting), unless there is a valid reason not to, such as evidence of domestic abuse and violence or child protection concerns. The goal of a MIAM is to help parents resolve problems without going to court.

If, following mediation or submitting the required exemption, an agreement still can’t be reached, an application can be filed. After that, the court follows a step-by-step process to figure out what's best for everyone involved.

Filing an application

When something in your family situation needs legal attention – like arranging child custody or dealing with financial matters – that's when you might want to file an application with the family court. This means you are officially asking for the court's help to sort things out.

To begin, you'll need to fill out certain forms that explain your situation and what you're asking the court to decide. While you can fill out these forms yourself, it's often a great idea to seek help from a family law solicitor at this point. They're familiar with these forms and can guide you through the process. This is a journey that can involve legal terms and important details, so having a professional by your side can make a big difference and prevent delays.

Once you've got your forms ready, you'll send them to the court. You can apply online, and this is usually the fastest way. However, you can also complete a paper application if you need to. You will also need to pay a court fee, or complete an exemption form if you are eligible for a fee exemption.

If you find yourself in a situation where family court might be needed, don't worry – you don’t have to go it alone. It's always a good idea to get some professional advice from a family law solicitor early on. They can help you understand the process, offer advice, and support you every step of the way.

Court proceedings

Once your application is filed, the court will do some checks and get things in order. They want to make sure all the necessary information is there and that everyone involved understands what's happening.

The next step is then a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment. A date for this is usually issued around 4 to 6 weeks after the application has been submitted.

First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment

At this stage, you and any other parties involved will be invited to attend something called the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA). The family court will send you a notice of proceedings, which you’ll need to respond to within 14 days, and an advisor from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) will start to gather information ahead of the hearing.

At the FHDRA, you'll get the chance to explain your case in a Position Statement. A position statement is a short summary that communicates your point of view. This isn’t always something that is required, however it can be useful if you feel nervous about speaking in court.

The court uses the FHDRA to figure out the best way forward. A CAFCASS officer will be present and, sometimes, a mediator. The court will consider what's in the best interests of everyone involved, especially any children. This might involve suggesting mediation or other ways to find common ground without going to a full trial.

If an agreement is reached at the FHDRA, the case can be concluded. In this situation, the court may make a consent order. If an agreement can’t be reached, the judge may still make a decision. However, in some cases a judge might decide they need more information. In these cases, further hearings may be scheduled and the court might ask you or other parties involved to file statements, or request reports or disclosure from the police or social services. A CAFCASS officer may also be required to meet children involved and create a report about their wishes and feelings.

The role of CAFCASS in Family Law

CAFCASS stands for Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. They are independent advisors to the family court. Their focus is on children and making sure their voices are heard.

They want to figure out what will make the children's lives better and safer. CAFCASS might talk to you, the other parent, and even the children themselves. This is to get a full picture of what's going on and what everyone's thoughts and feelings are.

Further hearings

After the initial steps and the involvement of CAFCASS, your case might need more attention. This is where further hearings come into play. These hearings help the court understand your situation better.

During further hearings, the court takes a closer look at the information provided and any changes that might have happened in the meantime. Here is a summary of the different types of hearings you might encounter in family court proceedings:

Dispute Resolution Appointments (DRA)

A Dispute Resolution Appointment (DRA), sometimes called a Dispute Resolution Hearing (DRH), usually comes after the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA). At this point, the focus is on considering any new evidence or reports gathered since the FHDRA. These could include things like drug tests, medical reports, police records, or additional reports from organisations like CAFCASS or Social Services.

During the DRA, you'll interact with CAFCASS and the other party, either in person or through a call or video call. The Judge or Magistrates will listen to both sides' arguments about ongoing issues and decide on next steps. If everyone agrees with CAFCASS or Social Services' recommendations, the DRA might become the final hearing, ending with a court order.

If there are still unresolved matters, the court will try to narrow them down and might give extra instructions. If there are delays with reports, the case could be postponed, and an extra report might be requested. When parties disagree with suggestions, the case might head to a Final Contested Hearing.

Fact Finding Hearings

A Fact Finding Hearing is where evidence related to accusations of domestic abuse, encompassing neglect, emotional distress, physical harm, and violence is examined. The court then determines whether the alleged incidents occurred or not. Evidence is presented, often involving cross-examination of parties involved. After reviewing the evidence, the judge decides the validity of the alleged incidents.

When making their decision, the judge evaluates the claims presented by both sides. The burden of proof lies with the party making the allegations. The judge considers the "balance of probabilities" to determine whether the allegations are likely true. This means the judge weighs whether it's more probable than not that the allegations are accurate.

Final hearings

At a Final hearing, the judge looks at all the evidence available. This includes information from you, reports from Cafcass, and details provided by the Local Authority. If there was a fact finding hearing, that's considered too.

Using all this information, the judge decides what's best for the child's well-being. They follow a 'welfare checklist' to make sure the child's interests come first.

The Judge could choose not to make an order or might decide a Child Arrangements Order is needed. This order lays out where the child will stay and contact arrangements.

How long do Family Court proceedings take?

When it comes to Family Court applications, there's a standard process that's followed, however how long the process takes from beginning to end can vary.

For cases involving children, there's typically a waiting period of about four weeks between starting the court process and the initial hearing. Court reports usually take around 12 weeks to be prepared. This means that cases involving child arrangements often take several months to reach a resolution. The timeframe largely depends on whether an agreement can be reached through the court or with the help of organisations like CAFCASS.

In financial cases, the waiting period between starting the case and the first hearing is generally around 12 to 16 weeks. This time is allocated to allow both parties to gather and share financial information. Similar to child-related cases, financial cases also take a few months to conclude if an agreement isn't reached. Temporary maintenance orders might be granted by the court during ongoing cases if there's an immediate need that can't be delayed. This is referred to as a Maintenance Pending Suit.

Family Court FAQs

Who is allowed in family court?

In Family Court, only the people directly involved in the case are allowed. This includes you, your legal representative if you have one, the other party, and their legal representative if they have one. Court staff and the judge are also present.

Do children go to family court?

Children should only come to court if they are part of the court process. This might mean that they are a witness, or have an appointment to meet with the judge. If you have to bring your children for any other reason, you should bring a trusted adult friend or family member to look after them. However, it is recommended not to bring children to family court unless they are required to be there.

What if my family case is urgent?

When your situation demands urgent attention in family court, you should inform the court as soon as possible. If your matter is time-sensitive, it's a good idea to contact the court before physically going there. The court staff will look at the urgency of your case and arrange for you to meet a judge or magistrates either on the same day or as soon as possible, depending on the circumstances.

When seeking an urgent court order, it's advisable to inform the other party about it. You can do this by writing, calling, texting, or emailing them.

In certain situations, you might need to ask the court to consider your application without notifying the other parent. This is referred to as a "without notice application." For this type of application, you'll need to prove one of the following:

  • Not informing the other parent would allow them to take actions that might undermine the purpose of your application (like taking the child abroad before the hearing).

  • Informing the other parent would compromise your safety or the child's safety, especially if there's a history of abuse or threats.

  • Extraordinary urgency exists, leaving no time to provide notice.

During a without notice hearing, you'll explain your reasons for seeking the order without involving the other party. The judge will then decide whether to grant the requested order immediately or delay the decision until hearing from the other party.

Even if the court approves the order you're seeking, they typically schedule a follow-up hearing. This subsequent hearing decides whether the order should continue. The other parent will be informed of this hearing date and invited to give their perspective.

What happens if I can’t attend a family court hearing?

Lots of things can happen if you do not attend a Family Court Hearing, depending on the circumstances. If you are unable to attend a hearing, you should tell your family law solicitor straight away. In some cases, if there is good reason, an adjournment can be arranged, which means it will be rescheduled for another date.
Can you stop family court proceedings?

It is possible to stop family law proceedings, but the process and outcomes depend on various factors. Family law proceedings can be emotionally taxing, and there might be situations where you wish to pause or stop the process.

Mutual Agreement: If both parties agree to stop family court proceedings, you can request a suspension. This might be helpful if you're considering reconciliation, mediation, or simply need more time to evaluate your situation.

Seeking Mediation: If you're in the midst of court proceedings and wish to explore other avenues, you can propose mediation. This involves both parties working with a neutral mediator to find common ground. If successful, this could lead to halting or altering the court process.

Temporary Orders: If you need a break to address specific matters, you can request temporary orders from the court. These might involve custody arrangements, financial support, or visitation schedules, which can provide temporary relief while proceedings are paused.

Consent Orders: If both parties agree on certain terms, they can submit consent orders to the court. This can result in halting or modifying the proceedings based on the agreed-upon terms.

Withdrawal of Application: If you started the family court process and decide to stop them, you can formally withdraw your application. Keep in mind that this might have implications depending on your situation.

Remember that each case is unique, and the options available to you might vary based on your circumstances.

Can I appeal the court’s decision?

In most cases, the final decision of the judge is legally binding and final. That being said, there are some circumstances in which you can appeal a court decision in family cases, for example if the judge makes a mistake or proper legal processes weren’t followed by the courts.

If you want to appeal the court’s decision, you have to do it within 21 days, unless you have been told otherwise. To appeal, you should request permission from the judge who made the decision or from the court that you are appealing to, depending on the circumstances.

In these kinds of situations, it is very important to seek legal advice from a solicitor, as appeals to the family court can be complex and cost a lot of money, so it’s important to know all your options before you begin.

Can a court order be changed?

Life can bring about changes even after a final court decision has been reached. For example, a Child Arrangements Order might no longer work well because a parent has moved. When this happens, you can request that a court order be changed.

This involves submitting the necessary documentation and adhering to the steps mentioned earlier. Just as you navigated the initial process, you'll follow a similar path if you find it necessary to adapt the court order to the new circumstances.

If you're at the beginning of your journey through the family court system, seeking help from a family law solicitor is the best place to start.

Navigating the family court system and proceedings might seem overwhelming, but you don’t have to face it alone. At Lawhive, we understand that each family's situation is unique, and our team of experienced family law solicitors is here to offer assistance tailored to your needs. With transparent pricing and online accessibility, we're committed to making this challenging journey smoother for you.

From negotiating agreements, exploring mediation, or even preparing for a trial, our team is here to guide you every step of the way. Contact us today to get your free fixed-fee quote and find the best solicitor for your family law case.

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