This page explains the different types of hearing that you might have in private family law cases, including the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment, fact finding hearings and final hearings.
Following a series of changes introduced on 22nd April 2014, the way in which family cases are dealt with by the courts has changed dramatically.
The County Courts and Magistrate Courts are now combined and are called the Family Court. You will be asked to attend your local Family Court which may be at your Local or Magistrate courts.
You should have attended a Mediation Information Meeting (MIAM) - please see our page on Mediation for more information.
What do the Family Courts do?
The Family Courts in England make decisions primarily about children and finances. When a relationship breaks down and individuals are not able to agree how finances should be divided or children should be brought up very often they will ask the courts to make a decision.
In the recent years it has become much more common to use alternative forms of dispute resolution instead of going to court. The method you will hear most commonly talked about is Mediation. There are other methods and these are commonly used in cases involving financial disputes following a divorce.
First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment
A First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) is the first court hearing after an application has been made to court in private family law. It is held to assist the court in identifying issues between the parties at an early stage and to see if it is possible for the parties to reach an agreement. A Cafcass Officer should also be present.
You can set out your case in a Position Statement. This is a useful document which is not
obligatory (unless ordered by the court) but can give the court a brief outline of your position in advance of the hearing. A position statement may help bring a case to an early conclusion if the other party accepts your position. It can also be used to give you a brief plan of what you want to achieve at the hearing. You should provide a copy of this statement to the other side in order to help progress the situation.
The judge (or magistrates) and the Cafcass Officer will attempt to assist the parties to reach agreement. Sometimes, there will be a mediator in the court building who might also assist the parties, and if the parties have not yet attempted mediation, the court may order that they do so before court proceedings commence.
Prior to the hearing starting, Cafcass should have prepared a 'Schedule 2 Letter' which should be shared with both parties (unless doing so would put either party or the children at risk and/or the document contains information which is sensitive of which the other party is unaware). The Schedule 2 Letter will include background checks on the parties, who the parents are and who the children live with.
If the parties can reach agreement at the FHDRA, a final order may be made setting out the details of the agreement, if the court deems it to be in the children's best interests.
If the parties cannot reach agreement, the court will seek to determine the areas where they disagree and the reasons why.
The court will then consider what evidence and/or may be required to assist a judge or
magistrates at a future hearing to decide on what is in the children's best interests.
If the case concerns contact and/or residence, and serious allegations are made, the judge may decide not to permit contact while matters are investigated. This does not mean that the court has made a final decision. The judge/magistrates and Cafcass may propose that contact be supervised and/or at a contact centre while matters are investigated. You too might suggest this in these circumstances. If there are no serious concerns, the court may order that there be contact immediately pending a final order at a future hearing (after any investigations are carried out, and evidence is submitted and heard).
A Judge may order a review hearing during proceedings, or once a Final Order is made. This, exactly as the name suggests, is just to review the matter. If during proceedings it is usually so that the Court can keep control of the case, ensuring that evidence is on time and that any interim contact ordered is still going ahead.
Following the making of a Final Order the court may wish to leave a case open for a number of months, listing a review hearing which can be vacated if the parties agree. This hearing is
intended to ensure that the Final Order is being complied with and can act as a safety net when one of the parties is particularly hostile to contact taking place. These hearings are not common, however it can sometimes be sensible to ask a Judge to leave a case open and place a clause in the Order giving you Liberty to return within a certain number of months. This means that if anything happens within that timeframe you should be able to return to court, without having to pay a further fee and have any problems arising from the implementation of the Final Order dealt with.
Fact Finding Hearing
A Fact Finding Hearing is a type of court hearing that considers the evidence surrounding allegations, and the court will make a decision as to whether alleged incidents did or did not happen. Evidence is heard, which will normally include parties being cross-examined. After having heard the evidence, the judge will decide whether the alleged incidents happened or not.
Most commonly, these allegations concern domestic abuse. Domestic abuse includes neglect, emotional and physical harm and violence.
When making a decision the judge has to consider the allegations made by each side. It is for the person making the allegations to prove that they are true. The Judge will consider on the balance of probabilities whether the allegations are true or not. This means that the judge will consider whether it is more likely than not that the allegations are true.
In preparation for a Fact Finding Hearing the person making the allegations will be asked to send a list of the allegations to the court. The list should be:
- signed and dated
- each incident should be numbered and set out in date order stating the date of the incident and details of what happened and where
- details of any witnesses to the incident and involvement of the police and/or medical services
- the list should contain a statement that it is true.
The person against whom the allegations are made will then be asked to respond to the allegations within a set timeframe. You should respond to each allegation in turn, setting out your account of the incident or stating that the allegation is denied.
You will both be asked to make written statements based on your evidence setting out what you wish to say to the court. You can also have witnesses give evidence with the court's permission.
At a Final Hearing the Judge will consider all of the available evidence, this will include evidence provided by the parties, any relevant Cafcass reports and information that has been provided by the Local Authority. If there has been a Fact Finding hearing the Judge will also take into account any findings made in the course of those proceedings.
Using all of this information the Judge will assess and come to a decision guided by the welfare of the child involved. Judges will then use the evidence before them in conjunction with the 'welfare checklist' in order to come to a decision which is in the best interests of the child.
The Judge may decide to make no order, or may consider that a Child Arrangements Order detailing residence and/or contact arrangements is necessary. There is an example of a Child Arrangements Order here.