For many involved in family-related issues, it will be necessary to attend court to resolve the matter at hand. These issues could include:
- Separation or divorce
- Child custody, access and maintenance
- Immigration and citizenship
- Health matters relating to a minor
- Contesting a Will
Your family solicitor will advise you whether your individual case will require a court hearing and if so, when and where it will take place.
While it can seem daunting to go to court, the process is designed to present facts, resolve matters and make the proceedings as easy as possible for those involved. Seeking court advice in advance will make things seem less scary. A little preparation will help you present your case or answer questions put to you on the day feeling more relaxed.
What is a family court?
A family court is one that decides cases involving children and the breakdown of family relationships. The Family Division oversees the majority of these types of legal disputes, while some more specialist cases are referred to the Family Division of the High Court. In all cases, each party is given the opportunity to present their case, with or without legal representation. The decisions made in the family court are binding.
How to prepare?
As with anything of importance, the key way to prepare for appearing in a family court is lots of advanced planning and preparation. You need to know what the court appearance is for and what you hope to achieve from it. For example, what child custody arrangements are you pushing for, or financial settlement after a divorce. Talk to your family solicitor and/or barrister to make sure that you (and they) know the details of the case inside out
Look up any aspects of the law or court advice that you are unclear about. Gather all supporting documents together and make sure any witnesses testifying for you are properly briefed. Make sure you know where and when to go on the day. Plan your transport there and back in advance, as well as any childcare you require. Children under the age of 14 will not be allowed inside the courtroom unless specified otherwise. For instance if they are giving evidence or are part of the case in another way. Arrange any time off from work that you will need in order to attend. Pick out your outfit the day before to avoid added stress on the day.
What to expect on the day
The next area of court advice is around what to expect on the date of your case. There is normally some kind of security reception to get through first, after which you will be shown where to wait. You can ask for directions inside if you are unsure where to go. You will normally meet your family solicitor or barrister before your case starts to go over any last-minute details. The lawyers from the other side may also ask to speak to you. You don’t have to speak to them if you feel uncomfortable. Your family solicitor can act on your behalf.
Once the judge is ready for you, you will be called into the court room and the case will begin. Your family solicitor can help explain things and offer more court advice as the case develops. You may also have breaks in proceedings if the case is longer or more complex. This gives you the chance to grab some fresh air, eat some food and take stock of what is happening. Either party may also request breaks if issues arise that need additional investigation or if a witness becomes upset during their testimony.
Citizen’s Advice offers additional advice about coming to court as a witness.
Support inside the court room
You are entitled to have family members or friends present in the room to support you from the public gallery, but they must not intervene or be disruptive or they may be asked to leave. If you are not using a family solicitor or barrister to represent you, this is called being a litigant in person. In this case, you can also have what’s called a McKenzie friend to sit next to you for support under English and Welsh law. They can take notes, help organise paperwork, offer court advice and make suggestions to you. They cannot speak to the judge on your behalf. Tell the usher as you go in if you have a McKenzie friend with you.
Keeping you safe
While it is perfectly normal to feel a little anxious about going to court, you should never feel too intimated to attend. There are processes in place to protect everyone involved, including witnesses, so that justice can be done and legal protocols followed. Citizen’s Advice offers various help and resources to help with anxieties around attending court, as can your local police service. If you are concerned about maintaining your privacy or anonymity, arrangements for this can be made if it is deemed appropriate.
Court advice around staying fit and healthy during the current pandemic is also available online. You should adhere to social distancing arrangements laid out in the court building and wear a face mask if appropriate. Use hand sanitiser where provided. Leave as soon as your court case is over to minimise contact with other people in the building.