[This article was revised on 23.5.14 to reflect changes to court process introduced in April 2014.]
Coming to court on a family matter is inevitably nerve-wracking. For many people, it’s their first experience of walking into a court building at all, and they are uncertain of what to expect. We at CFLP think that forewarned is forearmed, so we thought we’d start a series of FAQs explaining a bit about how the family court does its business.
Family cases are all unique, and if your case is very tricky or high-value then you may find yourself travelling to London for hearings in either the High Court or the Central Family Court. However, most family court work is heard at the local city’s county court building. The court building itself tends to be used for mainstream civil cases – usually claims for money – as well as for family cases. A different court, the crown court, is used for serious criminal cases; less difficult cases in all areas of law, including family, are dealt with in the magistrates’ court.
When first entering the court building you will need to go through security who will check your bag similar to an airport security check. Your case number will be listed on the notice board at the entrance and this will say which judge is hearing your case and in which court. If you are not sure the security staff are very friendly and will help you to find where you need to go. Check with your lawyer before to arrange what time and where they would like to meet you.
In the family court, the courtrooms themselves are usually modern rooms containing benches in front of a raised platform, where the judge will sit during the hearing. There are usually some individual rooms available outside the court for you and your lawyer to have private discussions. Be prepared that there may be some delay in getting in to see the judge.
Family cases about money are usually heard by district judges, while children’s arrangements are often dealt with by lay justices of the family court (do check with your solicitor if you are not sure what level of judge is hearing your case). It doesn’t matter which level of judge or justices deal with your case as all have the power to make orders of the family court with equivalent enforceability. There are no juries in family cases (juries are only used in serious criminal trials in the crown court) and the judge alone makes the decision. District judges are lawyers of considerable experience and expertise. In family cases, they do not wear judicial robes. The hearing is often more informal that people expect, although judges command significant respect and the hearing will follow a set course, with each party speaking in a particular order.
In a family case, the person making the application (the applicant) or a solicitor/barrister on their behalf speaks first to tell the judge what they are asking him or her to do. The other person (the respondent) or their legal representative then has a chance to put their case. Often, the judge will ask particular questions of one side or another, taking a more active role in the case than you might expect. In some cases, the judge will hear evidence from both sides and also from any independent or jointly-instructed experts if relevant, before making the decision. Unless the judge is hearing evidence, if you have a lawyer representing you, you are unlikely to have to speak to the judge. Sometimes, if the appointment is a final hearing, the judge will take time to think about and write his or her judgment. In most cases, the judge’s decision is made and communicated before the parties leave the courtroom, although it will take a while to receive the order on paper from the court.
Clients often ask us what they should wear to court. Questions of this sort are difficult to answer: clothing is such a personal thing and one person’s smart suit from M&S is another person’s worst nightmare. We would advise clients to wear something smart-ish and comfortable, and in which they feel themselves. Judges are trained not to judge people on their physical appearances, so the most important thing is for you to feel comfortable and the best ‘you’ you can be.
If you have any questions about family law or the family courts you would like us to address in the blog, do please leave a comment, email us or give us a call and let us know.