I have recently been on jury service, and it made me realise how not knowing what to expect can create/ or add to the feelings of stress when going to court. I attend family courts, almost daily, but I still had a hint of nerves going into the criminal courts in a role I was not used to. I received an information pack and a link to images of the court and “What to expect” a week before my jury service. I found that helpful, so I thought I would try to do the same for those attending the family courts.
How to get there
If you have a private family hearing- that being between private individuals about where a child should live or what time they are to spend with each parent, then your hearing may be at a local court. If you have a public law family case involving children’s services then your case will likely be in the local care centre which for Greater Manchester is the Civil Justice Centre in Manchester, 1 Bridge Street West, Manchester M60 9DJ. The building is mostly glass and is supposed to look like a filing cabinet with some drawers open!
The following link can be used to find any court in the country. It will give you a picture of the court building, directions and information about facilities.
What time to attend
Your court order should include the court and time of the hearing. Most family courts require you to attend one hour before the hearing time to allow for pre-hearing discussions. This may include discussion to clarify the issues for the court to determine and negotiations to see if some areas can be agreed or narrowed. The pre- hearing discussions are important, and you should allow enough time to be there for them.
What to bring
Family cases are confidential and are identified by the case number which you will find on the right-hand side of any court order or application. Any announcements will call the court case number, not the name of the people involved, so it is a good idea to bring the court order or notice with you. If you make a note of the case number, it will assist court staff to help you find where you need to be.
There can be some waiting around, and not all courts have a café, so bring a bottle of water, snack and maybe a book with you to pass the time.
You cannot wear anything on your head in the court building unless it is for religious reasons. There are no other rules about what to wear, although I would advise you try to dress smartly if you can.
You cannot bring weapons, (that one I hope is obvious!) glass or liquids into the building other than non-alcoholic drinks or hand sanitiser.
You will need to pass through security when you arrive. It is much like security at an airport. The staff will ask you to empty your pockets and check your bags. They will ask you to take a sip of any drink that you have. Everyday items that may be confiscated include scissors in vanity sets or on key rings, mirrors and perfume. Some courts will give you a raffle ticket to collect them as you leave but it is best not to take them with you.
There can be a queue at security so factor that into your journey time- I would allow 15 to 20 minutes to get through security.
Where to go once inside
Once through security you will need to book in with the court usher. The court usher will sign you in and tell you where to wait. They also help organise things like seating and papers for the court.
At the Manchester Civil Justice Centre there is a notice board with the court list on it to your right on the ground floor. There is also a reception desk opposite security on the ground floor where staff can help you locate which floor and court room you will be in. You will then need to book in with the court usher on the floor where your hearing will take place.
The Judge or magistrates will sit at the front facing you, slightly raised. Your legal representative if you have one will sit on the front row and you will sit behind them. The usher will let you know where to sit. There are NO wigs or gowns worn in the family court. It is a formal setting though and you will be asked to rise (stand up) when the Judge enters.
If your hearing is a preliminary hearing called a case management, dispute resolution or directions hearing its purpose will be to narrow the issues and to set a court timetable for statements, assessments or information gathering. Each person takes it in turn to speak. It is important not to interrupt, even if you do not agree with what is being said by the other person, you can let the Judge know you don’t agree when it is your turn. If your hearing is a final hearing, then you may give evidence. You will need to swear an oath, which can be done on a holy book or as an affirmation, both are a serious promises to tell the truth.
The above is a general guide to what to expect when you attend court. My role as solicitor advocate at Alfred Newton Solicitors is to represent you in the family court. This includes providing personal support and legal advice on law and procedure, the merits of your case including possible outcomes and to represent you in the hearing itself.