Going to Court?

For many people involved in family proceedings, this will be their first visit ever to a court. So to add to the stress and worry of the care proceedings, you also have to cope with an unfamiliar environment which you may find intimidating.

  • Hopefully if you are a parent, you are with your legal team who you know and trust. We have a useful article from a family law barrister here. 
  • If you don’t have a lawyer we have some advise for litigants in person or ‘self represented litigants’ here in our post ‘What if I don’t have a lawyer?’
  • The Courtroom Advice site offers step by step advice about the court process.
  • Her Majesty’s Courts Services (HMCS) publish leaflets about what to expect at court – see EX370 ‘Your first time at court? What you can expect’ and EX340 ‘I want to appeal’.
  • Here is a useful article explaining what happens when lawyers huddle together to agree ‘directions’ at an interim  hearing.
  • Here is a post from Ian Julian, a lay advocate, who explains the options available to you for getting help at court.

However, there are some things that help to know whether you have a lawyer or not.

Handy hints for everyone

Before you get to court

  • Make sure you know how to get to court, where to park etc if you are driving. Sadly you can’t assume that courts are near railway stations or have easy access to parking. You can find the location of any court on this government website
  • Don’t assume you will be able to find a private waiting room – some courts have very limited facilities, other courts have lots of rooms but they get filled up quickly. If you feel scared about coming to court in case of conflict with other people who will also be coming, make sure you tell your solicitor or the court and they will do what they can to get you a private space.
  • Don’t assume your case will start on time. Your case can be listed at 10am but when you get to court you may find that you are one of three different cases listed at the same time OR your judge has been asked to deal with an urgent application before yours. You may end up waiting a long time. Remember to bring something to drink/eat/read.
  • BUT don’t be late. Even though there is a good chance you won’t be starting on the dot of your listed time, if you decide to arrive an hour later, that will be the day your judge was ready to start right on time.  Either way, everyone will have to wait for you to arrive or the Judge will start without you.
  • Don’t assume that there will be anywhere near by to get a drink or a snack. Some courts have very limited vending machine facilities or nothing at all. Some courts have a nice cafe. Don’t wait until its too late to find out which one you are going to.
  • Remember to factor in the time you will need to get through security checks. Some courts get extremely busy around 10am and you can be waiting in the queue to be scanned by a security guard for half an hour or more. You can’t bring cameras or anything that could be used as a weapon into court –  some courts will not permit glass bottles for example.
  • If you are running late make sure you have a number to call – either your solicitor’s or the courts. Call and leave a message. You won’t be blamed for circumstances beyond your control such as traffic accidents or late trains, but it gets very frustrating for people waiting for you who don’t know where you are.
  • The court day is normally from about 10am to 4.30pm but in urgent hearings the court may sit later, particularly in the Magistrates court. If you need to make child care arrangements, make sure you can sort this out in good time as your hearing could over run and it is impossible to predict when this may happen.

When you are in the court room

  • Don’t be  surprised if it a much smaller room than you expected. If there are other people there that you don’t want to sit near to, ask your lawyer or the court staff to help re-arrange chairs etc to make the best of a bad job.
  • Don’t worry too much about what you wear. If you have got smart formal clothes and you feel comfortable in them, that’s great. But if you don’t normally wear suits don’t feel you have to dress up. Just wear something clean and not too outlandish which covers most of you up.
  • If you are giving evidence you will usually do so from another seat which is at the front of the court. You will have to either make a promise on a holy book that you will tell the truth or make an affirmation if you are not religious or don’t want to make a religious promise. Do not worry about which one you chose. No one will care. The important thing is that you tell the truth. The reason evidence is either ‘sworn’ on a holy book or ‘affirmed’ is because if the court finds you have told a lie in your evidence, this could mean you have committed the criminal offence of perjury which means ‘making false statements’. 
  • Try not to get into arguments with the person asking you questions. It never looks good.
  • Try not to ask questions of the person asking you questions, for e.g. ‘do you have children?’ Again, this rarely gives a good impression.
  • If you don’t understand a question, say so. Ask for the question to be put in a different way.
  • If someone asks you a question and you worry that a truthful answer will make you look bad, remember it gives a much worse impression to the judge if you say something while giving evidence that is seriously inconsistent with something you said before. You get a lot of credit for honestly owning up to anything that you did which others might criticise.
  • Even if you are very upset or angry by some of the questions, please try not to react in the court room. The Judge is taking notice of both what you say and how you say it.
  • If it is all getting too much, or you just need a break ask for one. Most judges will be sympathetic to a request for a 10 minute break and will probably be glad of it themselves.

 

The stages of care proceedings

The aim of the Children and Families Act 2014 is to speed up care proceedings. They must not take any longer than 26 weeks, unless an extension of that time is required in the interests of justice. To help speed things up, care proceedings now have 3 distinct stages.

  • Stage 1 the application is issued by the local authority (LA) and allocated to the appropriate court. This takes 2 days.
  • Stage 2, an Advocates Meeting (meeting with the lawyers, social worker and guardian) no later than day 10 to accommodate the Case Management Hearing (CMH) on day 12.
  • Stage 3 must be no later than 20 weeks from the date of the application and is called the Issues Resolution Hearing (IRH). This is no longer a directions hearing but instead a ‘genuine and informed attempt at resolving issues’. The hope is that some cases can be agreed at this hearing.

If you can’t agree the best way forward at the IRH, the court will find some dates for you to come back for the Final Hearing – this is where the court hears evidence from all the parties and makes a final decision.

You may be asked to decide how long you will need for a final hearing at the time of the case management hearing, which is pretty early on In the timetable and it may be impossible by day 12 to know how this case will pan out by day 140. Your lawyer will do his/her best to get a suitable timetable.

The LA must produce a numerous documents with its application, including genograms (family trees, setting out who is related to who)  and a chronology, and there will be a list of other documents which they don’t have to automatically show to the court unless you ask for this to happen.  Everyone must come to the Advocates Meeting ready and able to set out precisely what the case needs in terms of any further expert reports, to have found the names and contact details of any proposed experts and found out how long they would take to write a report and how much they would cost.

 

The impact of court orders

You must obey a court order, even if you think it is wrong. Unless and until that order is appealed or otherwise set aside the court will expect the order to be followed and will take a very dim view of any party who does not. See for example the clear words of the President of the Family Division in the case of Re W (Children) in 2014, citing his robust findings in a previous case:

I refer to the slapdash, lackadaisical and on occasions almost contumelious attitude which still far too frequently characterises the response to orders made by family courts. There is simply no excuse for this. Orders, including interlocutory orders, must be obeyed and complied with to the letter and on time. Too often they are not. They are not preferences, requests or mere indications; they are orders: see In re W (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Court’s Function) [2013] EWCA Civ 1227, [2014] 1 WLR 1611, para 74.

The law is clear. As Romer LJ said in Hadkinson v Hadkinson [1952] P 285, 288, in a passage endorsed by the Privy Council in Isaacs v Robertson [1985] AC 97, 101:

“It is the plain and unqualified obligation of every person against, or in respect of whom, an order is made by a court of competent jurisdiction, to obey it unless and until that order is discharged. The uncompromising nature of this obligation is shown by the fact that it extends even to cases where the person affected by an order believes it to be irregular or even void.”

Advice from a Parent

Here are some tips from a adoptive parent

If you get to the stage of having to go to court to fight a care order :

  • Ask the court for any leaflets they have on court procedures – they do exist but may not be offered.
  • If the hearing is for 10 am, go prepared for the whole day. Normally what happens is that everyone is scheduled for this time.
  • Speak to your solicitors – they act as a conduit between you and your barrister. Arrange a time to speak to your barrister, over the phone if necessary, prior to the court days. “Failure to prepare is preparation for failure” – but you are unable to speak to your barrister before you arrive at court UNLESS you arrange to do so through your solicitor.
  • Do not be afraid of the expert witness – be honest and allow them in to your home. They could be your best “friend”.
  • If you haven’t got legal representation – try to get a McKenzie’s friend to help.
  • Don’t be naive – in care proceedings you are playing against a professional team paid to do this day in day out – so you are probably outclassed before you start. Understand this and you can deal better with the situation.
  • The first challenge is to resist the interim care order – put everything into this as it will give you breathing space. To do this get organised very quickly. Do not wander in without being prepared.
  •  Court is very traditional. Mind your p’s and q’s – be polite at all times and the judge and legal professionals will be happier to deal with you.
  • Remember – the only important thing is the child – family does not exist so do not even try to think about that, the child’s best interests are all that matters.
  • A ward of court is no longer an OLD procedure, there is recent precedent that can give you this – it holds the LA to account and PR remains with you.
  • Always turn up – the easiest win is if you don’t attend court
  • Don’t expect the LA to follow a care plan, but make sure you do, to the letter.

Stay strong, remain steadfast as a family and don’t let the procedures change your beliefs!

Edit – thanks very much for this contribution. The only thing we would comment is that to say ‘family does not exist’ is giving the wrong impression; we agree with what you say about the child’s interests being very important but family members MUST come forward at an early stage if they want to be assessed or considered. The LA have to assess your family, it is the law. Talk to your lawyer about this. A big problem in care proceedings is family members coming to court very late in the day, too late for any assessment of what they can offer the child. 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Going to Court?

  1. Matt Harding

    I was wondering what the purpose of split hearings is? Normally if a couple is accused of something don’t they usually have a joint defense?

    Reply
  2. phillimoresarah

    The reason is that if a parent is accused of something very serious – such as deliberately inflicting an injury on a child – we need to know if this is true or not before we can move on to the ‘welfare stage’ i.e. deciding what is best for the child. There isn’t much point doing a parenting assessment before you have some idea whether a parent has really seriously abused a child or whether it is a case more about neglect or other issues.

    But I am not sure how this is now going to fit into the need to finish care proceedings within 26 weeks – obviously split hearings have the potential to elongate the timetable. But sometimes I think they are really necessary as there is a big difference between parents who physically harm or sexually abuse their children and parents who are neglectful. It may be easier to work with and bring about change with the second group as opposed to the first and I think the SW Team does need to have the clearest possible idea what they are dealing with.

    Reply
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  4. Scott

    I have a question.. I have family court this month.. my ex’s father is going for residential custody I think it’s called.. well anyway I haven’t seen my daughter since she was born more or less.. well I have an illness and without sounding like a really bad person, I don’t want any part in my daughter’s life.. long story.. I just wanna know if I have actually got to go to court or if I don’t? Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Phillimore

      I doubt very much the court would demand that you attend and send the police to get you, although in theory they could. But no one can force a parent into having a relationship with a child. If you don’t want it, you don’t want it. Doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person necessarily. I always think it is better to be honest.

      But I would definitely write to the court and explain that you are not coming. At least that way people know what’s what.

      Reply
  5. Laila harrazie

    Socalservices completely not answered any of my calls in 3 munth.s after me reciveing negative assessment for gardionsip of grandchildren I did speak to manager day of reciveing and told her more than half of assessment was incorrect and if she checked data and there telephone recording s she whould see she told me no wasn’t doing that appeal I said how she told me social worker will come out to me go through assessment and go from there but I rang evey day with no returned calls and no other way I could contact them I even text social worker meny times with no reply they put my neggertive assessment to court when I told them it was slander if they did as they reppetley using volitile aggressive with no supporting facual information unsorted geneerazations no they tell me it’s to late to go to court how can I get in court with my evidence all so disclose information to prove they lied and lied putting my grandchildren at serous risks of leaving my family for ever and could have been prevented if she just checked her computer this is criminal surely took my legal rights away to a show them my evidence that it was incorrect and put it in nowing my concerns court is 2 weeks away I’m probably going to lose my beautiful loved beoned believe grandchildren 9 4 my life is over I’m frightened for my self I cant breath thinking about this I also looked at papers for court on my doughter they say so much incorrect information mistakes every were written wrong name of children farther saying he attended mettings this never happened and this person is not my grandougher farther so why whould he attended meeting it’s all incorrect they say my doughter told them she don’t celebrate birthday cristmas extra were catholic we do we had party we had photos people attended cupple week s ago she said my doughter self medicated on my farther s diementure tablets were has that come from please I can’t get legal help can you advise me please

    Reply
    1. Sarah Phillimore

      I am sorry to hear this. You need to make an urgent application to the court to become a party or an intervenor in the case. Can you get to the court and ask the court staff to give you the right form to make an application on? You may have to pay for this unless you are receiving certain state benefits.

      Contact the LA and say you will be attending court and you will be making an application as you don’t accept the assessment and you want to be heard. However, you have to brace yourself for the court deciding that it is too late to take you into consideration if you are at the final hearing stage, which it sounds like you might be. But explain all that you have done to try and contact the LA and object to the assessment.

      you can ask the Judge if someone can come into court with you and take notes – this is called a McKenzie Friend.
      It would be really good if you could get some legal advice and turn up with either a barrister or a solicitor but I appreciate this costs money and you won’t get automatic legal aid.

      Reply
  6. Laila harrazie

    Thank you what do LA mean I can go to courts tommorow and apply I all have been told there is a system there to help 2 days a week layer’s give you frrr adive may even set out my evidence in order for court I think I can befend myself as I have gone in to most of Las of socalworkers since befor cristmas 18 hours a day I feal so angry at the moment as we’re is the laws of completely avoiding me makeing it inposible to apply as I went on what was told to me from social services I told them I had prove it was incorrect as I have ritten evidence some of it from socal worker court papers I come buy signed contredicks assessment how is this right they seem to do what they want with no one to answer to can you also tell me please what is my right to there words assuming I whould huw has the right to assume in something so beautiful human and loved human beings and use words such as volitile aggressive behaviour with out facks can this be evidence how could this be in my book it’s genuliceations with no substance how can this be presented to a jude jenulisceations no facks I say say any of this but it’s worth noting with out facual information how can you present this to a judge will he see it this way

    Reply
    1. Sarah Phillimore

      Sorry, ‘LA’ means ‘local authority’ – that is the state agency that employs the social workers and who makes an application to the court for a care order, for example like the London Borough of Hackney or Wiltshire Council etc.

      The courts are clear that they should not make findings that someone is ‘volatile’ or ‘aggressive’ without having clear evidence to prove it – so I would expect to see things like police reports of violent behaviour or complaints made by other people. It shouldn’t just be a social worker’s opinion, unless of course she/he directly experienced violence.

      If that is what you want the Judge to think about, then just tell him/her as you have told me. I often find it helpful to write things down, so I don’t forget to mention anything important. If you can type something up and print it out that would really help you and the Judge I think. If you can’t access computer/printer then you could write something out by hand.

      Reply

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