First Court Hearing in Contested Children Law Matters Explained
19 July 2018
By Family Law Solicitor, Julia Sacco
In England and Wales, the main purpose of the first Family Court hearing is to establish what the issues are concerning the child. Everyone involved will be encouraged to arrive early in an attempt to narrow the issues in dispute before the hearing. A Cafcass Officer may also be present to assess the best interests of the child and report back to the Court.
If an agreement is reached, the details of this would normally be set out in a Court Order. If no agreement is reached, a second hearing may be set.
For more information on how Family Courts are operating during the coronavirus pandemic, see Are Family Court Hearings Going Ahead during Lockdown?
Making an Application to the Court
When a legal decision needs to be made about a child that cannot be agreed upon by those with Parental Responsibility or involved with the children, an application must be made to the Court. The Court will then consider the application and an appropriate time will be set for a hearing to be held in relation to the issues raised.
There are many types of children law matters and types of applications that can be made, and as a result the hearing could be:
- On Notice Application – the most common type of hearing, where the other party is made aware of the hearing and asked to attend with sufficient advanced notice being provided
- Emergency Application – where there are extreme child protection concerns and no notice is given to the other party before the first hearing
- Short Notice Application – where there are serious enough concerns that the usual Court time frame for holding the first hearing will put the children at risk and so limited notice of the hearing is provided
This article explains 'On Notice' applications because these are the most common.
The First Hearing
The first hearing, known as the 'First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment' (FHDRA) may be heard either by a legal advisor, magistrates or a Judge. For ease of reading I will refer to Judges. The Court will usually require everyone involved to attend half an hour or an hour before the hearing is due to start to enable discussions to take place.
There will be a Cafcass Officer present. Cafcass stands for Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service. A Cafcass Officer assesses the best interests of the child and provides advice and recommendations to the Court. If they are present at the First Hearing they will speak with everyone who is involved, on both sides, and report back to the Court. They may suggest that further safeguarding checks are completed before a decision is made.
All those concerned will be given the opportunity to speak at some point during the case, although the First Hearing is usually only scheduled for an hour so time can be tight. As a result, some people may feel that they have not had the opportunity to put their full case forward. There will be further opportunities at later hearings and for statements to be given.
The main purpose of the First Hearing is to establish what the issues in dispute are and how they affect the child concerned. The people involved will also be encouraged to reach an agreement. If an agreement is reached, this will be set out in a Court Order.
If an agreement cannot be reached and a further hearing is needed, the Court may or may not allow contact between the child and non-resident parent in the meantime. This will depend on the issues that have been raised. The Court will not make an Order for contact with the child unless it is satisfied that to do so is better for the child than making no Order at all.
Considerations for the Court
The Court must always consider the welfare of the child when making an Order. 'Welfare' is not defined in the law, but there is a list of factors which a Judge should consider when deciding what is in the interest of the child's welfare. This includes:
- The ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in light of the child's age and level of understanding)
- The child's physical, emotional and educational needs
- The likely effect on the child of any change in their circumstances
- The child's age, sex, background and any characteristics of theirs which the court considers relevant
- Any harm the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering
- How capable each of the child's parents, and any other relevant person, is of meeting their needs
- The range of legal powers available to the Court to take action on the issues in question.
If the Court fails to run through these principles when reaching a decision, it may be possible to appeal that decision.
After the First Hearing
If children law matters cannot be agreed at the first hearing, the Court will usually set a date for the next hearing.
The Court will provide directions on what needs to be done in preparation for the next hearing. This will often involve the Cafcass Officer completing further safeguarding checks by speaking further with both parents, the children, and anyone else involved, as well as possibly visiting their homes. This is to enable Cafcass to establish what is in the best interests of the child. A report will then be filed to outline their findings and give guidance and recommendations to the Court.
Children law matters can be very lengthy and are highly emotive. There are many deadlines to be adhered to and evidence needs to be obtained and presented to the Court in a way that accurately reflects the case and sets out what is required from the Court.
It is always best to instruct a specialist Family Law Solicitor to ensure that the case is handled in the correct manner and to ensure the best possible outcome. At Co-op Legal Services, our Family Law Solicitors can draw on their experience to advise you, talk you through the possible outcomes and support you through your case.