Preparing for family court
On average, 80% of the divorce cases we handle do not go to court, instead reaching an agreement between the couple themselves, negotiation between solicitors, collaborative law or mediation.
However, despite the significant financial and emotional costs involved, an agreement cannot be made in some situations, and there is no other option than to go to the family court.
Once proceedings have been issued, they cannot be ignored and even if negotiations are ongoing, it is important to prepare for court in parallel, so you know what to expect on the day and how to handle it.
A notice of hearing from the court confirming the date for your hearing brings a mixture of emotions: the end of a long wait, relief that the process is moving forward and often a mix of dread and anxiety.
It is natural to feel nervous, and the following article is designed to help you prepare for your court hearing and give you some tips and hints on what to expect.
Before the court hearing
Once you receive the notice of hearing, do read it carefully.
There are several different types of family court hearings depending on the type of application. For example, the case may be listed as a directions hearing, a dispute resolution appointment, a fact-finding etc.
Preparing the court bundle
The court bundle contains all the documents and information listed in a certain order with an index at the front, and each page is numbered. Bundles are used in court by the judge and the parties, making it easier for everyone to refer to documents quickly.
The notice of hearing will also specify whose responsibility it is to prepare the court bundle. This is very important as that person needs to make sure that the court and all parties have a full copy of the papers before the hearing. The bundle should be agreed upon between the parties and a full copy sent to the court, usually three days before the hearing.
The notice of hearing may specify, but it is also helpful to prepare a brief position statement for the court, which will be sent to the court the day before, setting out your position and acting as a summary for the Judge/Magistrates.
The position statement should specify:
Name of the parties
What has happened since the last court hearing
Any concerns that you have, such as if the other party has failed to comply with the previous order
What you want the court to order at the hearing, such as permission to file a statement or request disclosure from the other party’s bank statements in a financial hearing.
The position statement should ideally be exchanged with the other party before you go into the court hearing, so you both know and understand the other person’s position. It is usually around two A4 pages long.
Once you receive a notice of hearing, you may also want to consider whether you would like to obtain legal advice. This can include legal advice surrounding and preparing for the hearing from a solicitor, or you may also want a barrister who will be able to represent you and speak on your behalf at the hearing.
If your budget allows, I would always suggest obtaining some level of legal advice so that you can feel prepared and informed ahead of the hearing.
If you wish to obtain legal representation or advice, the sooner you can speak to a solicitor, the better so that they have adequate time to prepare for the hearing.
This may include, for example, any statements (in addition to the position statement), or a Form E, which will need to be filed with the court before hearing.
Preparing for family court – practical arrangements on the day
Firstly, you should make sure you are available on the day. The courts very rarely change the date of a hearing, and you should do everything you can to make sure you do attend.
Usually, the hearing would be in person and held at a court building. However, in the pandemic, most hearings are now held either by telephone or by video link. The notice of hearing that you receive from the court should specify what method the court will use.
Virtual court hearings
If it is being held by telephone or video, do make sure you have provided your relevant contact details to the court ahead of the hearing. Different courts have adopted different approaches; some prefer to dial you into the hearing, whilst others will send you a link or number to call or use.
Please ensure that you are in a quiet room with good reception/WIFI where no one in your household will disrupt you.
It is advisable to make arrangements for children to be looked after throughout the hearing, as the courts would not expect you to bring them to a court building nor be present during any hearing held remotely.
If your court hearing is being held in person, ensure that you get to the court building at least one hour before your hearing time. There may be an opportunity to discuss or even negotiate some of the issues with your opponent/their legal representatives before going into the courtroom to help narrow down the issues.
If your case is a children case, CAFCASS or Social Services may also be in attendance and wish to speak to you before the hearing.
If you have any disabilities that may affect your ability to participate in or access the hearing, please let the court know when you receive the court date’s notice.
For example, if you are deaf or hard of hearing, you may struggle to participate in a remote hearing and request a hearing in person instead. Similarly, if you or your household is in the clinically vulnerable category or is shielding, it may be more appropriate for the hearing to be held remotely.
If you require an interpreter, please ensure the court is aware of your requirements, and they can discuss options with you.
Preparing for family court – on arrival at the court
On arrival at court, you will need to go through security, including going through metal detectors and having your bags searched.
You should register with the court’s Usher so they know that you have arrived and where you are sitting.
Although the court will allocate you a fixed time for the hearing, it may be that you are delayed going in as the Judge/Magistrates are dealing with another case first.
There may be several cases listed simultaneously as your case, so be prepared to be patient, you might be there all day!
Although there are some private rooms, if they are already occupied, you may be sitting in a larger waiting room until you get called in.
In circumstances where there is a history of domestic abuse or violence, or you feel scared or threatened by your opponent, you can request safeguarding provisions from the court to include separate waiting rooms, screens between you in court or providing evidence/dialling into the court via video link.
If this is applicable, please contact the court as soon as possible so they can assist you. Where necessary, the court’s will decide on your particular set of circumstances as to how they can assist.
You can bring a friend, relative or support worker to sit with you before the court hearing. They will not be allowed in the courtroom itself but can provide support/company pre and post-hearing if required.
Alternatively, if you are attending court without a lawyer, you can also ask the court’s permission that this person acts as your McKenzie Friend, which is when they are allowed in the courtroom to assist you.
They cannot speak on your behalf (save for in exceptional circumstances) but can support you through the hearing by taking notes and providing suggestions.
Some services offer McKenzie Friends, but please note that they may not be legally qualified. If you bring a McKenzie Friend to the court, you should let the Usher know on arrival.
Preparing for family court – during the court hearing
Once you are called and arrive in the courtroom itself, please do remember that first impressions count. Turn off your phone and be polite to your opponent and their legal representatives. You should dress smartly and stand when the Judge or Magistrates enter the room.
If you are the Applicant in the proceedings, i.e. the person who made the application or your opponent doesn’t have legal representation, you would usually be expected to address the court first, explaining what application you have made and what you are seeking from the court.
The other party are likely to say things that you may not agree with or support. Avoid interrupting and consider your reactions. This applies to both video or telephone hearings as the Judge or Magistrates are still likely to see you on video if you are pulling faces or expressing yourself.
The court will allow you both time to speak to set out your position. It is always good to be organised, have notes in front of you, set out what you want to say, and be as prepared as possible.
You must not film or record any part of the proceedings as these are private law hearings. Similarly, no one else should be present in the room if you are dialling in remotely without the court’s express permission.
After the court hearing, ensure that the other party has all the information they need from you before leaving the court building (or before you log off if being held remotely). For example, they may be in the process of drafting an order and will require your approval before it is lodged with the court, so always worth checking.
Get in touch
If you would like any advice or assistance on preparing for family court, please contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our lawyers here.