What Is It Like To Go To Family Court? What Should I Expect?

During the course of family proceedings, you are likely to have to attend court on several occasions, so preparing yourself to attend a hearing is essential. This guide sets out what the experience is like, and what might happen across the day. Read on to find out.

Where do we wait?

Each court is different, so this rather depends on the size of the city or town it serves. Essentially, the larger the town/city, the larger the court. Some courts have refreshment areas and vending machines, most have small meeting rooms, although these are as rare as hens teeth on busy hearing days. And all will have a quiet corner where you can discuss things with your solicitor privately.

When you first get there, you should book in with the usher, so they know you are present. You will need to give them your full name and case number.

If you have been subject to domestic abuse, then you or your solicitor should contact the court ahead of the hearing to arrange a private room, so you are not faced with your ex until you enter the court room.

When your case is called on over the PA system, you, your solicitor, your ex, and their solicitor, and anyone else involved in the case (such as the CAFCASS officer), will be taken to the court by the usher.

What is the court like inside?

Again, this depends on the size of the court and the type. Family proceedings tend to be held in magistrates courts which double up on non-family days for other purposes, such as criminal proceedings. These types of courts tend to be larger, and have several rows of benches, leading up to a raised platform where the magistrates will sit. In front and below them sits a legal adviser (clerk) who is a qualified legal professional and oversees proceedings. They can also advise the magistrates on legal technicalities.

The judge/magistrates sit at the top of the room facing as you enter. The witness box will be on one side and the usher will take you to it if you have to give evidence. As you face the rest of the court, there are several rows of tables typically laid out as follows:

  • First table: Lawyers who represent the parties/ask questions
  • Second table: Lawyers or other representatives of the parties or clients (social workers, parents, any connected parties and the CAFCASS officer, etc)
  • Third parties: the parties to the proceedings

The magistrates will enter the court room once all parties are seated and ready for the hearing to begin. The court clerk or the usher will ask all parties to rise as the magistrates enter. Parties bow to the bench and sit after the magistrates have seated themselves. Some hearings are dealt with by a panel of 3 magistrates, sometimes 2, again it depends on the size of the court and availability of magistrates.

If your case is in the county court, then you are likely to enter a medium-sized room, with the judge sitting at the far end. If the judge is seated, you should bow as you enter. The layout depends on the size of the room, but typically a horseshoe of tables is placed around the perimeter of the room. You will be directed to sit next to your solicitor, with your ex and their solicitor on the opposite side.

Family proceedings are not generally open to the public, so there will not be a lot of other people in the room. However, in certain circumstances, there may be a reporter recording the case.

What will happen at the hearing?

This depends on the type of hearing you are attending. If it is a first hearing, it is likely the court will focus on identifying the issues in dispute and working out what steps need to be taken before a final decision can be made. It is extremely rare for the court to resolve matters at the first hearing, but this is possible if matters can be agreed.

At each hearing, all parties should be given an opportunity to have their say, usually via their solicitor, before any decisions are made. Sometimes a judge will postpone dealing with certain issues and deal only with part of the dispute at the hearing.

If the court has been unable to resolve the dispute at an earlier hearing, it will list a longer hearing to give the parties time to have their say, give evidence, and call any witnesses.

What are the dos and don’ts when attending court?

Here are our suggestions for making attending court less stressful:

  • Check with your solicitor where and when you should meet them
  • Make sure you have appropriate childcare arrangements in place before the hearing
  • Make sure you wear appropriate clothing, although there are no formal rules here; wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt is unlikely to make a great impression
  • Find out from your solicitor who will be present at the hearing
  • Book in with the court usher when you arrive at the court building. You will need to provide your name and case number
  • Make sure your phone is switched off
  • Depending on the time of your hearing, make sure you eat and drink something beforehand.
  • Think about bringing along a friend or family member for support. Although this should not be a new partner, as you ex could see this as an inflammatory act, and behave accordingly.

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The information on this website is to be considered a guide and is therefore not legal advice. You use this information with the understanding that Wiselaw does not accept liability for any direct or indirect losses as a result of anyone relying on or acting upon the information on this website. Whilst we endeavour to provide accurate information, Wiselaw does not accept liability for any errors or omissions on this website.