Fact finding hearings consider allegations or decide important issues in family proceedings. They usually happen when parties cannot reach an agreement or are making allegations against one another which the court needs to address before it can move on with the main case.
Fact findings hearings are important in child arrangement applications because the court needs to be confident that the child will not be at risk of any harm if the child arrangement order is made. The court will only list a matter for a fact finding hearing if it is satisfied it is necessary to determine the issues and will assist the case going forward.
What happens at the fact finding hearing?
During the hearing, the party making the allegations gives evidence to the court first and is then cross-examined. This is repeated for the side against whom the allegations are made. The judge will consider all the evidence available, which could include police records, local authority or CAFCASS reports, medical records, and evidence from other professionals, such as teachers, who can offer another valuable perspective.
What is the standard of proof in a fact finding hearing?
The bar for the standard of proof in civil proceedings is lower than that in criminal proceedings. In a family case, decisions are made on the balance of probabilities. This means that the court will decide whether it is more likely than not that the incident being complained about took place. The burden of proof is on the person making the allegation.
What happens after a fact finding hearing?
The court will make their decision on each allegation before it and confirm whether it is proven as a fact. If so, it can then be relied upon in any subsequent family proceedings hearings. For allegations that are not proven, whether that is because they are deemed to be false or there is insufficient evidence to support a finding, they will be dismissed and not considered any further.
Example: Craig applies for a child arrangements order because he wants contact with his son, Arlo. The child’s mother, Julia, says she is the victim of domestic abuse and Craig was violent towards her during their relationship. A fact finding hearing is scheduled to decide whether her allegations are true. If the court rules in Julia’s favour, it will then need to consider the risks to Arlo, and the effect of Craig’s violent behaviour before deciding what sort of contact he should have. If the court finds the allegations are not true, then it can make decisions about contact on the assumption that Craig was not violent and does not pose any risk to Arlo.
After the judge has handed down their judgment, and set out their decision on each allegation, they will inform the parties of the next steps regarding the case. The court may require further evidence, such as an expert report, for example, or further witness statements. The judge has the discretion to make decisions at the end of the fact finding hearing or they can list the matter for a further hearing.
What is decided at the fact finding hearing?
As stated above, the court will decide whether each allegation is likely to be true or false, and may even find there is insufficient evidence to make a decision. Anything found to be true will be taken into consideration in any future decisions regarding the case, everything else will be disregarded.
At the end of the hearing, the judge will set out the next steps in the case, which may include:
- Whether the court needs to gather more evidence or have more time to make a decision
- Set a date for the next hearing
- Whether it can reach a final decision about the case based on the findings of the hearing.
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