What happens in Family Court?

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What happens in Family Court?

A combination of US and UK based courtroom dramas and reality TV shows have no doubt come to influence what many think a courtroom looks like in England and Wales.

Judge Judy and her UK counterpart, Judge Rinder, have given long-lasting impressions of what it might be like to stand before a judge whilst BBC dramas such as “Time”, or US dramas “How To Get Away With Murder” or “The Good Wife” have certainly contributed to the depiction of the courtroom as a grand hall of intimidation. Whilst this certainly can be the case, particularly in other areas of law that might see cases fought out at the High Court, the realities of the Family Court are perhaps a little less intimidating than many have come to expect.

This article will hopefully give a better idea of what happens in a Family Court, what the layout is, what to wear to court and hopefully ease any anxieties about stepping into the unknown.

What does the courtroom look like?

Many people understandably expect to step into a big hall, furnished with oak and an ambiance suited to a space that has seen sentences handed down to the most notorious criminals of our time. Practically every courtroom scene from EastEnders to Hollywood plays out in a place like this. However, most court rooms look nothing like this. In more modern court buildings, the rooms simply feel and look more like a large meeting room.

There will likely be two or three rows of tables. The first row will be occupied by your Barrister (often referred to as Counsel) and/or Solicitor and you will sit behind them in the second row, with your soon to be former spouse sitting in the same row as you, albeit at the other-end, so you won’t need to be concerned about having to interact with them directly if you don’t want to. A judge will be sat behind a raised desk at the very front of the room facing you and your legal team. There will most likely be another seat nearer to the judge, should you need to sit closer to answer any questions they may have for you.

Will I be on the stand and will I be cross examined?

Further engrained from television and films, are the scenes where a defendant, plaintiff or witness will step up onto a witness stand beside the judge and be subjected to a barrage of questions with only exclamations of “Objection” and “Over-ruled” to puncture the atmosphere, as members of the public follow proceedings. Whilst this may happen in some court cases, in Family Law cases, it is unlikely that you will answer any questions yourself. In all family proceedings it is only at the very end of cases, at a so called “Final Hearing” that you would be asked any questions pertaining to your case. Most family cases will reach an agreement before this time and even though you may attend court, for the most part it will be your Barrister or Solicitor who will be standing up and talking on your behalf. It’s also worth noting that family law cases are private and are not attended by members of the public.

Will the judge and barrister be wearing wigs/gowns?

A century old tradition, preventing barristers from being recognised in the streets by the people they’ve “sent down”. So it is often told, at least.

Again, the truth here is not as glamourous, nor as interesting. In fact, The University of Law writes that in the 1600s, wigs were introduced merely as a fashion statement as they were very expensive and seen as a symbol of status and authority. They grew to become accepted in Court before becoming mandatory. They have slowly become less popular and as of 2007 are no longer required in Civil and Family Courts. These days, the reality is that you won’t see a wig or a gown being worn in the Family Court. Whilst this may be disappointing to some in the hope of seeing a judge in full robes, brandishing a gavel (an item which does not exist in the English and Welsh Courts) the reality is the Judge, Barrister and Solicitor will be there wearing a suit much like at any formal meeting.

What should I wear to court?

You’ve probably heard it said that you should “wear your best clothes to court”. Whilst you do not need to dust down your dinner jacket or ball gown, it is recommended you attend in clothing which is smart and simple. A suit is recommended but if you have a dress shirt and trousers or a dress in a solid conservative colour then you will not be criticised by the judge.

What will the hearing involve?

That depends. If you are going to your first financial family hearing in court, then it is likely to be an administrative matter at which your Solicitor or Barrister will make submissions on your behalf as to how the case should progress. These hearings are usually relatively short, lasting less than one hour and sometimes take place online so you may not even need to attend in person.

Should you be attending a Final Financial Hearing, the hearing will take place over the course of a full day or longer. This is the hearing at which full evidence is given and the Judge will make a decision as to how assets should be divided between the parties.

The person who has made the application to court will set out why their proposals should be accepted by the court first. The person replying to the application, known as the respondent, will then be able to make their own submissions as to why their proposals are the better option. After hearing both positions, the judge will deliver their decision. This decision is known as the “judgment”.

What are the roles of the judge/barrister/solicitor in court?

All too often, TV shows depict lawyers as complete allrounders. Take, for example, “Richie” in EastEnders. Phil Mitchell’s “Brief” played by Sian Webber does do everything from representing Phil in Child Arrangement disputes to making all his nefarious dealings disappear. She does the paperwork, examines witnesses, represents him in court. She really is a one-stop-shop for all his legal affairs.

This is very rarely (if at all) the case nowadays. The people in your legal team will have separate but equally as important roles.

Let’s take each one in turn:

A Solicitor will represent clients in a dispute and will represent them in court if necessary. In complex matters, solicitors will often instruct barristers or specialist advocates to appear in court on behalf of their clients.
A Barrister in England & Wales is usually hired by solicitors to represent a case in court.
The role of a barrister is to act as your mouthpiece and they are there to convey your view of events into legal arguments to the opposition and make persuasive representations as to why the judge should agree with your position.
A Judge is there to determine how cases will be tried, subject to established legal rules of evidence and procedure.
You may also see an assistant to the judge. This is usually the Court Clerk who will assist the court in the administrative preparation and progression of your case.

Although this article has tried to answer as many questions as possible, it is, of course, not an exhaustive list of things one will encounter in the Family Court. We understand that for many this will be a nerve-wracking time and possibly the only time they will ever find themselves in court. We pride ourselves in the care and support we offer our clients as we guide them through this complex process, utilising not only the collective experience of our large firm but also our rich network of financial advisors, therapists and many other professionals that may be called upon in the case of a divorce.


If you wish to speak to one of our experts about drawing up a prenuptial agreement, simply get in touch either by calling 0345 872 6666 or by filling out our online enquiry form to request a call.

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