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)  EWCA Civ 1227,  1 WLR 1611, para 74.
The law is clear. As Romer LJ said in Hadkinson v Hadkinson  P 285, 288, in a passage endorsed by the Privy Council in Isaacs v Robertson  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.