England and Wales Family Court Process: 7 Steps

In England and Wales, legal family matters are dealt with in Family Court.

Child cases are handled separately from divorce cases in order to encourage parents to agree on child arrangements out of court. Judges generally don't want to make decisions about parenting and believe parents know what's best for a child.

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If you're able to agree on issues with the other parent, you should make a parenting plan (which includes a residence and contact schedule) to avoid court.

If you can't agree, you'll need to follow the process below to get Family Court orders: a Child Arrangements Order and possibly a Prohibited Steps Order or Specific Issue Order.

You can end the process at any point if you reach an agreement with the other parent. Then you can make your agreement legally binding through a Consent Order.

Before you represent yourself in court, familiarise yourself with what will be expected of you and check whether you qualify for free legal aid.

Step 1: Mediation meeting

Before you apply for an order, you must attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting, where a family mediator helps you assess alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options that could keep you out of court.

If none of the options are suitable or your attempt at ADR fails, you'll receive a form signed by a mediator that tells the court to proceed with your application.

You are exempt from this meeting where there's acceptable evidence of domestic violence.

Step 2: Making an application

Whichever parent completes an application for a court order must turn it in to the court (or have their solicitor do this) and pay a fee of around £200. Your court can provide more details on the application process.

You're the applicant if you file (open) the case, and you're the respondent if you are the other parent in the case.

The court gives the applicant the date of the first hearing, which is approximately four weeks after application. At least 14 days before the hearing, the court tells the other parent about the case through a process called service.

Step 3: Information-gathering phone call

Both parents then separately take part in a phone call with the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) to discuss the application. Cafcass officers are trained social workers.

The call covers:

  • What you want to achieve and why you want the court to help
  • Residence and contact arrangements (current and proposed)
  • Your concerns, particularly about the child's safety
  • Anyone else involved
  • All other relevant facts

If your case involves domestic abuse, you must state this in your application or discuss the issue on this call.

Be aware that the Cafcass officer can share with the judge any information you provide. They have to prepare a safeguarding report for the court, which includes background checks on the parents from social workers and the police. If issues arise, there may be a delay as the officer investigates further.

Step 4: First hearing and dispute resolution appointment (FHDRA)

The first hearing is for identifying the issues between parents and looking for a resolution. It may last several hours.

It normally takes place in private and is not open to family members or the public. Only parents, their solicitors, the judge and the Cafcass officer attend — plus, sometimes, a lay representative or courtroom supporter.

The Cafcass officer presents what was discussed on your phone call.

If parents reach an agreement and Cafcass has no welfare concerns, the judge will grant final orders and the court process will end here.

If parents cannot reach an agreement, the judge may grant a Prohibited Steps Order or Specific Issue Order for time-sensitive issues like child abuse. The judge will also tell parents the evidence they should each prepare for the dispute resolution appointment — the next hearing about a Child Arrangements Order.

Step 5: Dispute resolution appointment (DRA)

This is much like the first hearing and also takes place in private — but it is normally only an hour long. A Cafcass officer may attend.

The judge asks parents for a short summary of reasons in support of their case and looks at the prepared evidence. Required evidence could include:

  • Family records
  • Drug and alcohol test results
  • Social work reports (called S7 reports)

Then the judge works with parents to come up with an order they can both support.

Occasionally, the judge grants a Child Arrangements Order at this stage even when parents can't agree, bringing the case to a close.

More often, the judge doesn't have enough information or a parent disputes evidence, so the case continues on toward a final hearing.

Possible: Fact-finding hearing

The court may decide to deal with factual disputes at a fact-finding hearing prior to the final hearing. This allows the judge to consider specific evidence separately from other details.

Normally, fact-finding hearings concern domestic abuse, but they can be for anything the judge wants clarity on.

Once the judge decides whether alleged incidents happened, the case proceeds.

Step 6: Preparing your bundle

At this point, the applicant prepares a bundle.

A bundle is an organised file of all the papers and statements from the case. Make sure to follow the court's requirements for content and format.

If you are representing yourself, you can ask the court to help prepare your bundle. You can also use the Custody X Change app to help you prepare elements that you'll refer to in your final hearing, such as a parenting time calculation and a record of messages with the other parent.

Step 7: Final hearing

Only the most complicated or entrenched family cases reach a final hearing because the court strongly encourages parents to reach agreement.

A final hearing is essentially a trial where both parents give evidence, although Family Court never uses the term trial. Social workers and other expert witnesses can also give evidence and answer questions from both parties. Less frequently, family members like grandparents testify.

The judge considers all the previous information of the case (in more detail now) as well as any new evidence. Particularly complex evidence is reserved for final hearings, which last as long as necessary for the judge to examine information thoroughly — sometimes several days.

Finally, the judge makes a decision and issues a Child Arrangements Order, possibly with a Prohibited Steps Order or Specific Issue Order.

Ordinarily, this is the end of the matter. However, you may have to return to court to seek enforcement of an order or to amend it.

It is crucial you see a final hearing as a worst-case scenario and do your best to reach an agreement with the other parent as early as possible.

Using technology throughout court proceedings

Court proceedings require serious organisation.

You may want to present the judge with a calendar of when you care for your child, a list of parenting expenses, a parenting journal and more.

The Custody X Change app lets you create and manage all of these elements in one place. It helps you prepare for every step of your case.

Take advantage of our technology to get what's best for your child.

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