Going into family court proceedings can feel overwhelming. You’ll naturally be concerned about what lies ahead for your family and may worry that your children will be taken from your family home by the Court.
Walking in with a clearer understanding of the court proceedings and the role of each party can go a long way towards easing anxiety levels and reducing your fear of the unknown.
If you are required to attend family court, this article outlines what you can expect from your local authority during court proceedings.
What does the Family Court do?
As the name suggests, the family court deals with matters relating to families. Cases will involve children and/or financial disputes.
The family court will deal with both public and private cases.
Public cases are those brought by local authorities. They happen when a local authority has concerns about the welfare and wellbeing of a child and wants the courts to intervene to safeguard them from harm. The case will be heard by a family judge.
Private cases are disputes amongst families. Typically, these cases will relate to things such as when separating parents are unable to agree amongst themselves who the child should live with (used to be called custody), whether a child can move abroad or even which school they should attend.
Both public and private cases can provoke heightened emotions. It’s the family court judge’s responsibility to determine which course of action is in the best interests of the child.
What happens at the first hearing of the Family Court?
In private law children cases, the first hearing of the family court is known as the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA). This initial stage of the court process enables the court to learn more about the circumstances of the case and the issues that exist between each party. Importantly, this initial hearing also allows the court to consider if there is scope for the parties involved to reach an agreement without the case proceeding further through the court process.
A representative of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) will be present during this hearing. The Cafcass representative will prepare a letter prior to this hearing which includes background checks on each parent and recommendations as to interim orders and contact.
Should an agreement not be reached during this initial hearing, the next hearing will be scheduled.
In cases where the local authorities have initiated care proceedings due to concerns over a child’s welfare, the process is a little different. The local authority will first submit an application for a care order or a supervision order to be made. This application will outline their concerns and what they believe should happen next to protect that child. The application will also indicate whether the local authorities believe the hearing should be held urgently because there is an immediate risk of harm to the child.
The court will then issue directions which outline what all parties are required to do before the first hearing takes place. This will include the preparation of a statement by both parents and the appointment of a solicitor for the child.
The first hearing will then take place. This is known as a case management hearing (CMH). At this hearing, the details of the application will be discussed so that the courts can understand what the issue is, set a timeframe for the case to proceed and make directions for expert evidence. Details of interim care arrangements will also be discussed.
What cases does the Family Court deal with?
The family court will deal with a wide range of family matters involving children and finances. This includes child arrangements and care proceedings.
What do local authorities do in family court proceedings?
Local authorities can be involved in both private and public cases at the family court. While the local authorities will only bring a case where they have immediate worries about a child’s wellbeing, they may also participate in private cases if they have previously been involved with the family concerned. They, rather than Cafcass, may be instructed to carry out a welfare report, for example, if a children case (contact/living with arrangements) is being heard and that child is or was previously the subject of a child protection plan.
If your family is facing proceedings in the family court, it’s important to seek professional legal advice from an experienced family solicitor as soon as possible. Contact us to schedule a consultation.