The court process should be very much regarded as a blunt instrument. The court system is regrettably underfunded, under resourced and the quality of the judging is variable. It should really be a last resort when all else fails.
The process itself starts with asking the court to make an order for one reason or other – most commonly because it hasn’t been possible to agree some arrangements, or a particular issue needs resolving which the parents can’t agree.
The court will list a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA), which is an opportunity for the court to try and broker an agreement. Prior to that hearing CAFCASS (the courts’ social workers) will conduct safety checks and a telephone interview with the parents. In the Central Family Court in London the parents have to bring any child over 8 years old to court to be interviewed by CAFCASS at the hearing as well. Those views then get fed back in the court hearing (the children don’t come into the court room itself).
If the case isn’t resolved at this stage, then the next stage is for the court to list a Dispute Resolution Appointment. Prior to that court date, the court will usually order each party to write a witness statement including all their evidence about why they say their view is correct. The court may well also say that CAFCASS or an Independent Social Worker (a specialist who is not taxpayer funded) should produce a report on the issues, and on the children’s welfare. The CAFCASS officer or ISW will then report back to the court having read the evidence and met with the parents and the children.
If the case can’t be resolved by agreement at the DRA, the court will order a final hearing. At this hearing, the judge and the parties will hear live evidence (questions under oath) from the parents, and the CAFCASS officer and any other witnesses and then make a binding decision.
If there are disputed facts, sometimes the court will order a fact-finding hearing. This is where the court has witness evidence in writing and then live evidence in court on a particular issue or event which is of significance, and where the factual background isn’t agreed.