Going to Court on a family matter can be a daunting experience, however, with careful preparation before the Hearing and seeking legal advice early, you can help minimise that stress.
I am often asked by clients to provide guidance as to what to expect when they represent themselves as a “Litigant in Person” and this article summarises what I would talk through with them before they attend Court.
Remember also, the Judge will know that you are not legally qualified, so do not feel afraid to ask the Judge, or Court staff, if you require any clarification on any aspect of the Court proceedings.
How should I prepare for a Hearing in Court?
- You should have been given or sent a copy of any applications submitted to Court, as well as a Notice of Hearing. The Notice of Hearing will have the case number, the address of the Court at which the hearing will be held, as well as the time of the hearing, the time estimate and date.
- In Family Law proceedings you may be contacted by CAFCASS a few weeks or days prior to the hearing. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) is a non-departmental public body in England set up to promote the welfare of children and families involved in Court proceedings.
CAFCASS officers are trained social workers who are contacted by the Court prior to a hearing being listed to carry out safeguarding checks with the Police and Local Authority to confirm if there are any known safety risks to the children in the case. In most cases, a CAFCASS officer will contact the parties to discuss any concerns they may have regarding the children.
- In some cases, you may be asked by the Court to file a Position Statement prior to the hearing. These are usually kept to a certain length and require you to set out what your position is in relation to the proceedings and what you would like to happen to move the case forward, explaining clearly your reasons why.
You will need to send a copy to the other parties in the case, as well as the Court, by the deadline given. You should also make sure the document has the case number clearly written on it as well as your signature at the end of it, along with the date on which you drafted it.
- If you have a disability, you should inform the Court as soon as possible so that they can try to accommodate your needs to the best of their ability.
If you are unfamiliar with the Court’s location, it is always worthwhile to pay a visit to the Court before the hearing to see how long it takes you to travel and to see if there is adequate parking.
The Court may however, change the location of the Court (for example, to the Magistrates Court) a day or two before the hearing, so always contact the Court the afternoon before the day of the hearing to ensure that there is no change.
- There can be a lot of waiting about at Court so remember to ensure you have made adequate arrangements for any child care or work arrangements.
- Remember to take to Court any Court papers, pen and paper so that you can take notes. You may want to take refreshments with you, although there may be canteen facilities available in the Court building.
What do I need to do when I arrive at Court?
- Remember to dress smartly but comfortably on the day. When attending Court you will need to arrive early (the Notice of Hearing will tell you how early you need to attend) and remember that even though the hearing may be listed for 30 minutes, you could be there for most of the day.
- When you arrive at Court and have cleared security, you should go to the usher’s desk, ensuring you have your Court paperwork with you so that they can recognise the case number and confirm that you have arrived. There may be private rooms available where you can sit and, if so, be sure to let the usher know which room you are in so that they can come and find you. When cases are ready to be heard, the case number will usually be announced over a loudspeaker system so remember to listen out for your case number being announced.
- It is quite likely that the CAFCASS officer or legal representative for the other party will try and find you before the hearing so that they can discuss a way forward. Sometimes, issues can be resolved before you get into Court, but, if not, the time may still be used productively to see if there has been any change in the parties’ positions.
What is expected from me at the Hearing?
- Ensure that your mobile telephone is switched off if you have one with you.
- The legal representative for the other side may direct you, if you ask them to, as to where you need to sit. The Court clerk may also direct you if you ask them to do so when you arrive.
- Addressing the Judge as “Sir or Madam” is the correct way to refer to a District Judge, however Magistrates can also be addressed as both “Sir or Madam” or “Your Worships”. If however, you are addressing a Circuit Judge, you may have to refer to them as “Your Honour”. If you are unsure as to how you should address the Court Judge, then this is also something that the Court usher can help with.
- Make sure you speak when you are asked to speak, do not raise your voice, be courteous and do not interrupt. The Judge may be making notes, so remember to speak slowly and clearly. Make sure you make notes, remembering to highlight any dates that the Judge refers to as well as any Directions that the Court makes.
- The Judge may ask questions and it goes without saying that your answers should be truthful and to the point. If you do not understand a question, ask the Judge to repeat themselves. You may find that the legal representative for the other party to the proceedings may do most of the talking. If so, try not to interrupt them but write down the point you wish to make and raise it after they have finished speaking.
What if I am too nervous about speaking in Court?
You may be able to bring a friend with you to attend the hearing. This friend may be able to come into Court and sit with you, help take notes and give quiet advice to you. Such friends are referred to as “Mackenzie Friends” and are not necessarily legally qualified. They cannot (unless given permission by the Judge) address the Court or examine any witnesses.
What will happen after the Hearing?
- If one of the parties has a legal representative, they may be asked to “draft an Order”. This is simply the formal task of writing the Directions given by the Judge. You may be asked to wait so that the Order can be drafted or the legal representative may email this document to you for your approval the next day or so before it is sent to the Judge for “sealing”.
- If you are unhappy with the draft document, inform the legal representative immediately so that they have the opportunity make any necessary amendments. This is why it is important to make notes during the hearing so that you can compare your notes to the actual Order.
- Usually there will be dates given such as when things have to be done by and when the next hearing is. Ensure that all dates are diarised, with appropriate reminders set out in your diary to remind you of upcoming deadlines.
- Please remember that family proceedings are confidential. Therefore do not show any evidence or Court documents to anyone not involved in the proceedings.
I understand the worry and stress that can be caused by divorce and separation. Instructing a solicitor to act on your behalf can ease much of the pressure and provide essential advice and guidance when you most need it.