Northern Ireland Family Court Process: 5 Steps

Child arrangements cases in Northern Ireland are heard at three courts:

  • Family Proceedings Court — where all cases begin
  • Family Care Centre (also called County Court) — where complex cases are transferred to
  • High Court's Family Division — where the most complex cases are transferred to

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 altogether.

If you can't agree, you'll need to follow the process below to get family court orders: a Residence Order or Contact 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.

Before applying for a court order

Before applying for any type of family order, you should explore alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options like mediation.

Family Mediation Northern Ireland and Bernardos are two government-recommended organisations providing mediation. They can also give general guidance on settling child-related matters out of court.

If you're not able to agree after trying ADR methods, then the court will consider your application for an order.

You can skip ADR altogether if there has been domestic abuse or if social services are involved with your family.

Step 1: Making an application

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

The applicant submits to the court the forms to apply for an order (starting with form C1) and pays a fee of around £90.

The court then informs the other parent of the proceedings — through a process called service — and gives you both the date of the first directions hearing.

Step 2: First directions hearing

This hearing takes place around four to six weeks after your application is made. Parents and the judge discuss issues including:

  • The timetable for proceedings
  • What has happened when you've attempted to reach an agreement
  • Information from social services

When a parent has requested a Prohibited Steps Order or Specific Issue Order, the judge often grants it at this hearing. These orders tend to be needed quickly as a result of abuse or fear of your child being removed from the country.

Unless you reach an agreement with the other parent on a Residence Order or Contact Order at this hearing — thereby ending your case — the case will adjourn (pause) so a welfare report can be prepared. If the judge believes you might be able to agree with some help, they will order you to attend mediation first.

Step 3: Welfare report

In Northern Ireland, court children's officers are responsible for compiling welfare reports.

A court children's reporter visits both parents' homes and speaks with people in your child's life, as well as with your child (when the child is old enough to express thoughts coherently).

The judge decides if the information compiled for a welfare report gets presented to the court in person or in writing.

Step 4: Review hearing

After the judge has absorbed the welfare report, a review hearing takes place, similar to the first directions hearing.

Often, the judge issues a Residence Order or Contact Order here (ending the case) because they feel they have all the information they need.

If the judge does not issue final orders and parents still cannot agree, the court will schedule a final hearing.

Possible: Submitting statements of evidence

Each parent may have to submit a statement of evidence two weeks before the final hearing. This happens where there are complex disagreements or the court children's officer has been unable to find out adequate information.

The statement must contain all the physical evidence you plan to present at the final hearing, which may include:

  • Proposed living arrangements for your child
  • Proposed school arrangements
  • Calendar of your child's schooling and other activities
  • Written communication parents had about the disputes before going to court (outside of ADR meetings)
  • Your opinion of the order proposed
  • Your child's wishes and feelings (if old enough and appropriate)
  • Description of your child's health issues (if applicable)
  • Names of anyone else involved in raising your child, such as grandparents
  • Any other relevant information, such as school reports

However, parents can reserve oral evidence for the final hearing.

If you have a solicitor, they'll draft your statement. You can save them time (and save yourself money) by getting things ready with the Custody X Change app, such as:

If you're representing yourself, Custody X Change can help you organise and format this same evidence so it's ready for court.

Step 5: Final hearing

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

At the final hearing, the parent who opened the case presents their evidence first, followed by the other parent. (Unless you are representing yourself, your solicitor does this on your behalf.) Anyone else who holds parental responsibility can also present information.

Then parents call witnesses (usually experts like social workers) to testify. Parents and their witnesses can be cross-examined (questioned by the other side).

Once the judge has made a decision — which can take days, weeks or sometimes months — they issue final orders.

Ordinarily, this is the end of the matter. However, you usually have a right to appeal within 14 days. And you may have to return to court later to seek enforcement of an order or to amend it.

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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