Family Law Glossary

Tenancy in common

A way of owning property jointly such that if one owner were to die, the surviving owner or owners do not automatically inherit the deceased's share. Instead, their share will pass in accordance with their will or the Intestacy Rules if they have died without making a will. This is distinct from a joint tenancy.

Child Maintenance Service

This government body administers the calculation, collection and enforcement of child maintenance payments in almost all cases where an informal arrangement is not possible. The Child Support Agency was set up in the 1990s but stopped dealing with any new cases from 2013 onwards. The Child Maintenance Service opened in 2012 and now takes on all new cases. Parents who live apart do not have to use the service unless there is a dispute over payments that they cannot resolve themselves.

Ancillary relief proceedings

The old-fashioned term for the financial proceedings associated with a divorce , dissolution or decree of nullity .


In court proceedings, the term for the person who begins the proceedings by making an application. If a person makes an application within existing proceedings, they are also an 'applicant' but they are usually known by their original title within the proceedings, i.e. the applicant if they made the original application or the respondent if they did not.


An application to a higher court to alter a decision made by a lower court.


A lawyer who specialises in speaking on their clients' behalf in court and giving written opinions on specific legal issues.


When parties to a legal dispute agree formally that instead of going to court, they will ask a third party with the appropriate qualifications and expertise - an arbitrator - to make a decision. The parties agree in advance that they will be bound by the arbitrator's decision, which can only be challenged in specific circumstances.


The crime of attempting to marry while still married to another person.


The term for the file(s) of documents and specific instructions given to a barrister by a solicitor who has hired (or 'instructed') them on their client's behalf.


This stands for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. CAFCASS officers speak to parents, children and other relevant family members and professionals to advise the court when it is making a decision about the upbringing of a child or children. CAFCASS officers are social workers who are independent of the courts, social services and health and education authorities. CAFCASS officers write reports to help the courts reach decisions about children, assist parents in dispute with attempting to reach a settlement at court and, in some complex cases, represent the child within court proceedings.

Child arrangements order

An order of the court specifying who a child is to live with and when (this can be more than one person at different times) and who they are to see and when. These used to be called residence orders and contact orders .


The name for the offices of either a judge or a barrister.

Civil partnership

Available from 2005 for same sex couples and opposite sex couples from 2019, civil partnerships provide equivalent legal rights to marriage. From December 2014, it has been possible to convert a same sex civil partnership into a marriage without the need for a ceremony or for the civil partnership to first be dissolved.


The postponement of a court hearing to a later date.

Clean break

A financial settlement upon divorce or dissolution where there are to be no ongoing payments made by one spouse or civil partner to the other, except for the payment of child maintenance (if applicable), and where neither spouse or civil partner will have any continuing financial claim against the other. A clean break can take effect immediately upon the dissolution of the marriage or civil partnership, after a certain date or after certain specified actions have been taken (e.g. the payment of a lump sum or the sale of a property).


Sharing a home with a person of the same or the opposite sex and living as husband and wife or civil partners without being married or entering into a civil partnership, otherwise known as 'living together'.

Collaborative law

A form of alternative dispute resolution used to resolve family disputes. Each party appoints their own specially trained lawyer and commits to trying to reach an agreement without going to court. Face to face meetings take place involving both parties and their lawyers.

Cohabitation agreement

An agreement entered into by a cohabiting couple setting out the financial arrangements they will adopt while they are living together and/or what will happen to their property and financial affairs if they separate.

Committal to prison

When a judge sends a person to prison for disobeying a court order, breaching an undertaking or being in contempt of court.

Conditional order

The first order made in civil partnership dissolution proceedings or divorce proceedings starting on or after 6 April 2022. It is made once the court has decided that a sole or joint applicants is/are entitled to a divorce or dissolution.

Consent order

In the context of financial settlements relating to divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership, a consent order is a document setting out the terms of the settlement, which has been approved by the court and sealed (i.e. stamped with a symbol to confirm it has been approved). A financial settlement reached through mediation, collaborative law or otherwise is not legally binding unless it has been turned into a consent order and sealed. More generally, a consent order is the term given to an order of the court to which the parties agree rather than it being imposed upon them. A consent order can be made (if the judge agrees) either to bring proceedings to an end or where the parties agree on what interim steps should be taken while a court case is ongoing.

Contact centre

A venue, usually run by volunteers, where children can meet with their parents if they do not live with them and it is not possible at that time for legal or other reasons for that meeting to take place elsewhere.


In the past, if divorce proceedings were begun on the basis of a person's adultery, the third party with whom they had committed adultery had to be named in the proceedings in order for the adultery to be proven. The third party would be the 'co-respondent'. In modern times, it was not necessary for the co-respondent to be named and it was positively discouraged, even though it remained possible to commence divorce proceedings on the basis of one party’s adultery until 6 April 2022. For divorces starting on or after 6 April 2022, the entitlement to a divorce is proved on the basis of a simple statement that the parties’ marriage has irretrievably broken down, without further details. This is often known as no fault divorce.

Contact order

The old term for a court order specifying when a child should see and/or stay overnight with a person (very often a parent) they do not live with. These orders are now known under the collective term 'child arrangements orders' .

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR)

A collective term for ways of resolving legal disputes other than through court proceedings. Methods of alternative dispute resolution, which is usually known by the abbreviation ADR, include mediation , collaborative law , 'round table' meetings held to reach agreement through discussion, arbitration , and negotiations conducted via solicitors.


Having sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex other than your husband or wife. This was one of the five ‘facts’ by which the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage could be proved for the purposes of getting a divorce, prior to 6 April 2022. With the introduction of no fault divorce, this is no longer possible.


The questioning of a witness who has given evidence in support of one party to a legal dispute by the person representing another party. The witness could be a party to the dispute themselves or another person.

Parenting Plan

A document that is drawn up between parents on separation, setting out how all aspects of the child/children's care and upbringing will be addressed.


An order made under the Inherent Jurisdiction of the High Court that confers protective guardianship powers over all aspects of the child's care and that restricts the exercise of parental responsibility by anyone who holds it. Most commonly used in abduction and forced marriage proceedings.

Summary Return

An order made in child abduction proceedings that provides for the urgent return of the child to the country from which they have been removed.

Surrogacy Agreement

A written document that sets out the agreement between the intended parent/parents and the surrogate, and/or the fertility clinic and deals with the conditions that will apply to the arrangement and the future intentions for the child's care and legal parenthood. The legal status of surrogacy agreement varies between countries. They are not legally binding in the UK.


A woman carries and gives birth to a child on behalf of another person or a couple. There are two types of surrogacy:

  • Host surrogacy (also known as full surrogacy or gestational surrogacy) - the surrogate is not biologically related to the child
  • Traditional surrogacy (also known as straight surrogacy) - the surrogate is biologically related to the child

The woman who carries and gives birth to a child/children on behalf of someone else.

Special Guardianship Order

An order that can only be made in favour of a non-parent, which provides for a child to live with the person in whose favour it is made and which attributes parental responsibility at a higher level than a child arrangements order, but which does not sever legal parenthood. Often considered half way between 'residence' and adoption and often used in extended family situations, where the arrangements are intended as long term but not necessarily permanent.

Section 8 Order

The collective reference for the most common orders made in relation to children, which are all set out in Section 8 of the Children Act 1989, namely:

  • Residence and Contact (now known as Child Arrangements)
  • Prohibited Steps Orders
  • Specific Issue Orders
Pre-Birth Orders

Orders that transfer legal parenthood to the intended parent(s) in a surrogacy arrangement, prior to the child's birth. Pre-Birth Orders are not available in the UK for surrogacy arrangements, but can be obtained in certain other jurisdictions. A Parental Order is still required in the UK, even if such orders have been made abroad.

Port Alert

An urgent notification sent to all ports and exit points to prevent the imminent removal of a child from the jurisdiction. A Port Alert can be issued by the High Court or, in certain circumstances, by the police.

Parental Order

An order made following a surrogacy arrangement that confers legal parenthood on the intended parent(s), and which extinguishes all legal ties between the child, the surrogate and, if applicable, the surrogate’s husband.

Legal parent

A person who has acquired legal parenthood by operation of law. This is not always the same as the biological parent or the psychological parent and depends upon the circumstances of conception. A child can have only one legal parent, but cannot have more than two.


In the context of legal proceedings, a solicitor or barrister who speaks on their client's behalf in court.

Leave to Remove

An application for permission to relocate a child to another country.

Intended parents

The individual or couple who will care for and raise the child born as a result of a donation or surrogacy arrangement. Also sometimes known as the commissioning parent(s).

Hague Convention

Most usually refers to an international convention signed by approximately 90 countries worldwide regarding child abduction. This sets out strict rules for how any court must deal with child abduction and provides for the prompt return of children to the country of origin in all but exceptional circumstances. There are also Hague Conventions on adoption, applicable jurisdiction and the gathering of evidence.

Habitual residence

Habitual residence is a legal concept regarding where a person is based at any given time, depending on where they have certain links. Habitual residence is often crucial for a court to be able to exercise jurisdiction over a case. This is different to basic physical presence. It is possible to have more than one habitual residence sequentially, but you cannot have more than one at the same time.

Donation Agreement

An agreement between parties involved in gamete (egg or sperm) donation arrangements that sets out the intentions and understanding of the parties as regards the donation, the parenthood and upbringing of any child born as a result of the donation.


This can be an important factor in deciding which country has jurisdiction to hear a divorce, financial remedy or children dispute. Domicile is a legal concept regarding a person's permanent roots and most significant ties. Everyone has a domicile of origin based on their birth, but can in certain circumstances replace that with a domicile of choice. The precise definition of domicile can vary between countries and for certain different types of proceedings.


Although still used informally to mean residence and parental rights, custody has not existed in English law for many years after being replaced by Section 8 orders and Parental Responsibility in the Children Act 1989. There is no such thing as a custody order in English Law. The word is still used in abduction proceedings, in relation to who in law has a right to decide where a child lives.

Co-Parenting Agreement

An agreement between the legal, biological and/or social parents of a child setting out the intended arrangements for the child's upbringing and the role each relevant adult(s) will play in the child's life.

Commissioning parent

The individual or couple who will care for and raise the child born as a result of a donation or surrogacy arrangement. Often referred to as the intended parent(s).


A child is taken across an international border without the consent of a parent with parental rights/rights of custody or the permission of the court. This can be both a criminal and civil offence.


A sworn witness statement, rather than one that is simply signed. The affidavit is taken to a solicitor or member of staff at court who is authorised to administer oaths and the person making the statement swears on a holy book or affirms that the contents of the statement are true.


An alternative term for a barrister .

Decree absolute

The final decree in divorce proceedings that started before 6 April 2022. For divorces starting on or after 6 April 2022, the equivalent order is called a final order. When the court makes the decree absolute or final order, the parties are no longer married to each other and are free to marry again or form a civil partnership if they wish.


A solemn promise. The consequences of breaking that promise will differ depending upon who has made it and whether or not it has been made to the court. In all circumstances, it is a very serious matter to breach an undertaking.

Prohibited steps order

An order made by a court stopping ('prohibiting') someone from doing something relating to the upbringing of a child. This could be, for example, an order stopping someone from taking a child out of the country.

Order for sale

An order made by the court stating that a property must be sold and the proceeds of sale dealt with in a particular way.

Pension attachment

An order made upon divorce or the dissolution of a civil partnership stating that a certain percentage of a person's current or future monthly pension income and/or pension lump sum must be paid over to their former spouse or civil partner. Pension attachment orders are fairly unusual due to the availability of pension sharing orders .

Parental Responsibility

The rights and obligations associated with bringing up a child.

Periodical payments order

The technical term for 'maintenance' .

Pension sharing order

An order made upon divorce or the dissolution of a civil partnership stating that some or all of one party's pension benefits accrued up to that point be 'shared' with their former spouse or civil partner. That former spouse or civil partner will either become a member of their ex's pension scheme or a pension fund will be transferred to another scheme for them on their behalf.


The document used to begin divorce, dissolution of civil partnership, judicial separation or nullity proceedings until 6 April 2022. The relevant form is now called an application. The document will set out basic information about the parties (e.g. full names, addresses etc) and explain the basis on which a divorce, dissolution or other order is sought.


Until 6 April 2022, the title given to the person who completes a petition and thereby began proceedings for a divorce, dissolution of civil partnership, judicial separation or nullity. That person is now known as an applicant. It is now possible to begin a divorce or dissolution as a sole or joint applicant.

Post-nuptial agreement

An agreement entered into between a couple after their marriage or civil partnership has taken place, setting out what will happen to their property and financial affairs in the event that they divorce or dissolve their civil partnership. Also known as a post-nup or post-partnership agreement.

Pre-nuptial agreement

An agreement entered into before a couple marries or enters into a civil partnership, setting out what will happen to their property and financial affairs in the event that they divorce or dissolve their civil partnership. Also known as a pre-nup, a premarital agreement or a pre-partnership agreement.

Property adjustment order

An order made in financial remedy proceedings changing the ownership of property, often a house, but not restricted to this. For example, the court might order that a house be transferred from the name of a husband and a wife into the husband's sole name or the other way round. Property adjustment orders can be combined with any number of other financial orders, but are often found alongside lump sum orders so that a person may receive a sum of money in return for signing over their share of a house.

Queen's Counsel

A title given to senior lawyers (usually barristers ) who have achieved a high level of expertise in their specialist field and have been recognised as deserving of the title by an independent panel. Due to the material used in their official robes, Queen's Counsel (generally shortened to QC) are referred to as 'silks' or 'having taken silk'. In the family court, robes are virtually never worn by barristers, solicitors or judges. QCs are also known as Leading Counsel.


An order made by the court where there is technical reason why a marriage or civil partnership is invalid or void, sometimes known popularly as an annulment. Nullity orders are very unusual.


The person who is on the receiving end of an application (e.g. for a child arrangements order or a divorce). In children proceedings, the respondent can ask the court to make certain alternative orders once the case has begun. For example, the respondent to an application for an order that a child will live with the applicant could ask the court to make an order that the child should live with each of them at different times during the week.

Residence order

The old term for an order specifying with whom a child is to live and when. Such orders are now known collectively as child arrangements orders .

Specific issue order

An order determining a particular question about the upbringing of a child. For instance, a specific issue order would have to be made if a child's parents could not agree upon which school they should attend.


Another name for a QC or Queen's Counsel .


The process whereby legal documents are delivered to (or served upon) a person or company in compliance with the relevant rules. For example, documents in some family proceedings must be sent to a person 14 days before a court hearing.

Statement in support of divorce / dissolution

In proceedings that started before 6 April 2022, a document completed after the divorce or dissolution petition has been served upon the respondent, which confirms certain matters to enable the process to continue. For proceedings starting on or after 6 April 2022, the applicant(s) complete(s) a single application for a conditional order.

Secured periodical payments order

A periodical payments or maintenance order that states that if the payments are not kept up, the court automatically has the power to order the sale of a particular asset (e.g. a house) upon which the payments have been 'secured'. These orders are only made in very particular circumstances.


A mark stamped onto documents showing that they have been received and/or approved by the court.

Statement of information

Where a financial settlement has been reached in divorce or dissolution proceedings, this document is sent to court alongside an agreed financial consent order to provide the judge with an overview of the parties' financial positions so that they can ensure the settlement is reasonably fair before approving and sealing it.

Without prejudice

When a letter, document or other communication is 'without prejudice', it cannot later be shown to the court. Negotiations about a financial settlement associated with a divorce may be agreed to be 'without prejudice' to allow more productive discussions than might take place if those involved knew what they were saying could be repeated to a judge in future, if the negotiations failed and the court had to decide the case. Whether or not a document or a discussion is indeed 'without prejudice' can be a highly technical and difficult legal question.

Non-molestation order

An order made by the court to protect a person from harassment, intimidation and/or violence by someone with whom they have or have had a relationship, whether as family or as a couple. Non-molestation orders are sometimes known colloquially as 'injunctions'.

Occupation order

An order made by the court to regulate who can live in a particular home and/or how they occupy the home. Although there are many variations, such orders may often stop someone from returning to a property altogether or conversely allow a person who has been excluded from a property to return.


The legal process whereby a marriage is brought to an end.

First Appointment

The first hearing in financial remedy proceedings at which the court will give instructions, known as directions, to ensure that sufficient information and expert opinion is available so that the court can decide the case.


The legal process, equivalent to divorce, whereby a civil partnership is brought to an end.

Evidence in chief

The questioning of a witness who is giving evidence in support of a party to a legal dispute by the person representing that party. The witness could be a party to the dispute themselves or another person.


In legal proceedings, a person with particular knowledge or skills in a specific area who gives written and/or verbal evidence to a court in order to help it decide a case. The expert could be asked to provide an opinion by one party to the dispute or by the parties acting jointly.

Family Court

A single point of entry for all family disputes requiring the assistance of the court. Different levels of judges hear cases depending on the complexity of the dispute.

Acknowledgement of Service

A document sent to court to confirm that you have received certain paperwork in legal proceedings. In divorce or dissolution proceedings, the acknowledgement of service has to be returned to the court within a set timescale.

Decree nisi

The first decree in divorce proceedings that started before 6 April 2022. For divorces starting on or after 6 April 2022, the equivalent order is called a conditional order. It is made when the court has decided that the person(s) applying is entitled to a divorce.

Final hearing

A court hearing after which the judge will make a decision on the issues in dispute. The judge will usually hear evidence given by the parties and (if applicable) any witnesses or relevant experts as well as arguments from the parties' representatives advancing their cases. The decision can either be given at the end of the hearing (which can last more than one day or even several weeks in very complex cases) or on a later date.

Financial Dispute Resolution Hearing

Known colloquially as an FDR, this is a without prejudice hearing within financial remedy proceedings at which the parties' representatives will explain to the judge what offers they have made to settle the case and why they believe those offers were justified given the circumstances of the case. The judge cannot make a final decision at the FDR but will usually give guidance as to the appropriate outcome in order to help the parties reach a settlement. Many cases settle at or shortly after this hearing.

Final order

Generally, this means the last order made by the court, which deals with all disputed issues in a case. In the context of civil partnership dissolution and divorces starting on or after 6 April 2022, the final order is the second order made by the court, after which the marriage or civil partnership comes to an end and the former partners are free to marry someone else or form a new civil partnership with them.

Form E

A lengthy form with various supporting documents that is used by parties within most financial remedy proceedings to give a complete picture of their assets, income, liabilities and expenses.

Financial remedy proceedings

The collective term for court proceedings concerning financial disputes relating to the breakdown of marriages and civil partnerships or financial provision for children whose parents are not married.

Maintenance pending suit/Interim maintenance

Maintenance payments ordered by the court to be made either, before the date of the decree absolute/final order (maintenance pending suit), or, after the date of the decree absolute/final order but before a final decision has been reached on all the issues in dispute (interim maintenance).


An order of the court instructing a person to do or refrain from doing a specific action. An injunction is also a colloquial term given to non-molestation and [occupation orders].

Freezing injunction

The colloquial term for an order made to prevent a person dealing with or getting rid of assets in a way that could prejudice the outcome of financial remedy proceedings to the other party's disadvantage.


This has two distinct but related meanings. It can refer to the ability of a court to deal with a particular case. For example, the family court has jurisdiction to deal with divorces. It can also refer to a geographical territory whose courts apply the same laws. In the United Kingdom there are, for most purposes, three individual jurisdictions, the courts of which apply laws that differ to a greater or lesser extent. Those jurisdictions are England and Wales (a single jurisdiction), Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Judicial separation

An alternative to divorce or civil partnership dissolution whereby the parties remain married or within a civil partnership but their separation is formally recognised. It is most often used where one or both parties has a religious or ethical objection to divorce.

Joint tenancy

A way of owning property jointly that provides that in the event of the death of one owner, the surviving owner or owners will automatically inherit their share of the property, regardless of the contents of their will. This can be changed by 'severing the joint tenancy' to become tenants in common .


A debt or similar financial obligation. In civil litigation, liability has a distinct technical meaning.


Regular payments made by one person towards the living expenses of another and/or children in their care. Maintenance payments are technically known as periodical payments .

Lump sum order

An order made in financial remedy proceedings stating that a sum of money must be paid by a certain date or upon the occurrence of a specified event, such as the sale of a property.

Litigant in person

A person who is representing themselves in court or tribunal proceedings. They may also be known as a self-represented litigant.


A form of alternative dispute resolution in which a specially trained third party will work with parties in dispute, either separately or together, to identify the issues on which they agree and disagree and attempt to find a mutually acceptable resolution.

Matrimonial home

The home shared by a married couple as their main place of residence. It is also known as the family home or the former matrimonial home, in the context of divorce proceedings.

No fault divorce

The conversational term for the new law on divorce and civil partnership dissolution, in force from 6 April 2022. It is described as ‘no fault’ because the application simply states that the parties’ marriage or civil partnership has broken down irretrievably, without giving further details or proof of fault.

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