Hearings in the Family Court

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

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. 

Using alternative forms of dispute resolution instead of going to court has become much more common in recent years. Mediation is the method that is most commonly touched on. Other methods exist, and they are frequently 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 a private family law application has been submitted. It is held to assist the court in identifying issues between the parties at an early stage and determining whether the parties are capable of reaching an agreement. A Cafcass Officer should be present as well.

A Position Statement can be used to present your case. This is a useful document that is not required (unless ordered by the court) but can provide the court with a concise outline of your position prior to the hearing. If the other party accepts your position, a position statement can help bring a case to a quick conclusion. It can also be used to provide you with a concise plan of what you hope to accomplish at the hearing. You should send a copy of this statement to the other party in order to help the situation progress.

The judge (or magistrates) and the Cafcass Officer will make every effort to help the parties reach an agreement. Sometimes a mediator will be present in the courthouse to assist the parties, and if the parties have not yet attempted mediation, the court may order that they do so before court proceedings begin.

Cafcass should have prepared a ‘Schedule 2 Letter’ prior to the hearing, which should be shared with both parties (unless doing so would put either party or the children at risk and/or the document contains sensitive information about which the other party is unaware). Background checks on the parties, who the parents are, and who the children live with will be included in the Schedule 2 Letter.

If the parties can reach an agreement at the FHDRA, the court may issue a final order outlining the terms of the agreement if the court believes it is in the best interests of the children.

If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the court will look into the areas where they disagree and why.

If the case involves contact and/or residence and serious allegations are made, the judge may decide not to allow contact while the matter is being investigated. This is not to say that the court has reached a final decision. While matters are being investigated, the judge/magistrates and Cafcass may propose that contact be supervised and/or at a contact centre. In these circumstances, you may also make this suggestion. If there are no serious concerns, the court may order interim contact pending a final order at a future hearing (after any investigations are completed and evidence is submitted and heard).

Case management decisions which should be considered at the FHDRA include:

  • What, if any, issues are agreed and what are the key issues to be determined?
  • Should the matter be listed for a fact-finding hearing?
  • Are there any interim orders which can usefully be made (e.g. indirect, supported or supervised contact) pending Dispute Resolution Appointment or final hearing?
  • What directions are required to ensure the application is ready for a Dispute Resolution Appointment or final hearing – statements, reports etc?
  • Should the application be listed for a Dispute Resolution Appointment (it is envisaged that most cases will be so listed)?
  • Should the application be listed straightaway for a final hearing?
  • Judicial continuity should be actively considered (especially if there has been or is to be a fact finding hearing or a contested interim hearing).

Dispute Resolution Appointment

The court shall list the application for a Dispute Resolution Appointment (‘DRA’) to follow the preparation of section 7 or other expert report if this is considered likely to be helpful in the interests of the child.

At the DRA the Court will –

  1. Identify the key issue(s) (if any) to be determined and the extent to which those issues can be resolved or narrowed at the DRA;
  2. Consider whether the DRA can be used as a final hearing;
  3. Resolve or narrow the issues by hearing evidence;
  4. Identify the evidence to be heard on the issues which remain to be resolved at the final hearing;
  5. Give final case management directions including:
  • Filing of further evidence;
  • Filing of a statement of facts/issues remaining to be determined;
  • Filing of a witness template and / or skeleton arguments;
  • Ensuring compliance with Practice Direction 27A (the Bundles Practice Direction);
  • Listing the Final Hearing.

Fact Finding Hearing

A Fact Finding Hearing is a type of court hearing in which the evidence surrounding allegations is considered, and the court decides whether or not the alleged incidents occurred. Evidence is heard, which usually includes cross-examination of parties. After hearing the evidence, the judge will decide whether or not the alleged incidents occurred.

Most commonly, these allegations concern domestic abuse. Domestic abuse includes neglect, emotional and physical harm and violence. 

When making a decision, the judge must take into account the allegations made by each party. It is up to the person making the allegations to prove their veracity. The Judge will decide whether the allegations are true or false based on the balance of probabilities. This means that the judge will consider whether the allegations are more likely than not 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.

Final Hearing

The Judge will consider all available evidence at a final hearing, including evidence provided by the parties, any relevant Cafcass reports, and information provided by the local authority. If there has been a Fact Finding hearing, the Judge will consider any findings made during those proceedings.

Using all of this information, the Judge will assess and make a decision based on the best interests of the child in question. Judges will then use the evidence presented to them in conjunction with the ‘welfare checklist‘ to make a decision that 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.

Attendance of parties at court

Attendance at court hearings is not required, but it is strongly encouraged so that each party has an opportunity to present their case. Even if you are not present in court, the family court can proceed with the hearing.

What if I am unable to attend court and I want to adjourn?  

To begin, we recommend that you seek the consent of all other parties to the case regarding the proposed adjournment. If the consent of other parties is obtained, the application to adjourn the hearing will be strengthened.

Next, we recommend contacting the court where the proceedings are being held and requesting an adjournment informally. However, in most cases, the court will require a C2 form to be submitted in order to formally request an adjournment. This C2 form must be submitted along with documentation from the other parties establishing consent (where given).

The decision to postpone a court hearing is entirely at the Judge’s discretion. The courts are encouraged to deal with cases as quickly and efficiently as possible because delays can be detrimental to all parties, particularly any children who may be involved in the proceedings.

If the other parties have not consented to the adjournment, the court will seek their input to ensure that no one is harmed by the court’s decision.

Factors which will be considered by the Judge in deciding whether to postpone will include:

  • What are the reasons given for adjourning the hearing. 
  • The stage of proceedings – Is the first or final hearing. 
  • The impact that the adjournment will have on all other parties, professionals, children, witnesses. 
  • How far in the future is the next available date should the adjournment be granted. 

This information is correct at the time of writing, 27th October 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.

On this page

This information is correct at the time of writing, 27th October 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.

We would value any feedback you may have regarding our website. Please click here to take our short survey.