In the UK, the Family Court is a combination of the Magistrate Court and the County Courts. They are the place where disputes are settled relating to children and finances, as a last resort. The intention is that cases will only go to the Family Court when all of the other methods of resolution (such as mediation) have been exhausted.
The rules changed on 22nd April 2014 meaning that children were better protected in the family court. Attendance at the Family Court is not compulsory but it is encouraged.
First hearing dispute resolution appointment
The First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment – also known as the FHDRA – is the first step in the process in the Family Court. After an application has been made in private family law, the FHDRA is in place to initiate the process and look at the best ways to resolve the issues that are identified at that time. A Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) officer will be present at the appointment to ensure that the wellbeing of the child(ren) involved is best cared for.
During this appointment, the magistrate and possibly a mediator will look at ways to resolve these issues along with the Cafcass officer, in the best interests of the child.
It is possible, at this point, to make a Position Statement. This means that you can set out your case, giving an outline of your current position. It is not normally obligatory to provide a Position Statement, but sometimes the court will ask for one. This statement can be an effective way to get the issue resolved quickly, but you must remember to provide a copy of it to the other party in advance.
Schedule 2 Letter
The Cafcass officer will also provide a Schedule 2 letter that they will have previously prepared. In this letter, details about both of the parties will be given, including background checks on each party, information on each parent, and the child’s current living arrangements.
This letter will be given to both parties prior to the hearing – unless it is not in the child’s best interest to do this or there is sensitive information in the document of which the other party is not aware.
Once the magistrate has this information, they will often be able to make a decision at the FHDRA. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes the court will then need to go on to resolve any of the outstanding issues before a decision can be made.
Some cases involve decisions to be made about contact and/or custody of a child. It is possible that if serious allegations are made, contact might not be allowed whilst the case is still going through. It could also be the case that contact is allowed only at a contact centre or if it is supervised. It is important to remember that although this might be the case during the investigation, it is not necessarily so that these restrictions will be ongoing after the case is resolved.
Some of the decisions that are made during an FHCRA involve:
- What the main issues that are to be determined are and any other issues
- Whether a fact-finding hearing is necessary
- Any interim orders that need to be made pending a final hearing or Dispute Resolution Appointment
- Determining any actions that are required for the application for a final hearing or Dispute Resolution Appointment
- Whether the application should be listed for a Dispute Resolution Appointment
- Whether the application should be listed straight away for a final hearing
- To stipulate that judicial continuity should be kept – especially if a fact finding or contested interim hearing is needed
What is a dispute resolution appointment?
If it has been decided to be in the interests of the child, a Dispute Resolution Appointment follows the preparation of section 7 or another expert report.
If there is a Dispute Resolution Appointment, the court will:
- 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
- Consider whether the DRA can be used as a final hearing
- Resolve or narrow the issues by hearing evidence
- Identify the evidence to be heard on the issues which remain to be resolved at the final hearing
- Give final case management directions including:
1. Filing of further evidence
2. Filing of a statement of facts/issues remaining to be determined
3. Filing of a witness template and/or skeleton arguments
4. Ensuring Compliance with Practice Direction 27A (the Bundles Practice Direction)
5. Listing the Final Hearing
What is a fact finding hearing?
Fact Finding Hearings are a particular kind of court hearing that involves investigating the facts around a particular issue – more often than not, domestic abuse. In the hearing, evidence will be seen to back up the arguments of each party and a judge will make a decision based on this evidence.
In a Fact Finding Hearing, allegations will be made and the person making them will have to send a list of these allegations to the court. The person having the allegations made against them will then have to respond.
What is a final hearing?
Once all of the evidence has been seen, reports filed, the Cafcass report taken into account, and Local Authority information considered, as well as the outcome of any Fact Finding Hearing, looked at, the judge will make a decision based on the best thing for the well-being of the child.
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