From TV programmes and films to the chat down the pub, mention divorce and ‘going to court’ is so often mentioned. Although many cases don’t end up in court I understand there is still a lot of confusion.
It occurred to me that many people might not actually know what to expect when going to court in divorce or family proceedings. What does a divorce court look like? Is it akin to a boxing ring? Does the judge wear robes and a wig? Will you have to give evidence from a witness stand?
Here’s a quick guide to the divorce courts of England and Wales.
First thing to remember is that in many cases no-one actually needs to go to any hearings at all. Many divorces are uncontested and are dealt with on paper only. Keeping the settlement out of court will save time and money and so an experienced family lawyer should always be advising that you do everything possible to reach agreement with your estranged husband or wife before it gets to the stage of going to court. You are most likely to need to go to a hearing if your case is about money or children and has not been able to be resolved between solicitors or through mediation.
Court buildings vary tremendously. Some are relatively new, purpose-built buildings, others are more like suites of offices. Family court hearings are generally held in the Magistrates Court (also known as the Family Proceedings Court) or the County Court (often in the same building as the Crown Court as a “combined court centre”).
The majority of family hearings are held in private in “chambers”. This means they will be in rooms used by District Judges (in the county court) which look like offices. There will often be a large table with chairs around two or three sides, and the judge’s desk at one end. You will sit next to your lawyer on one side, the other party and their lawyer on the other. The District Judge stays in the room all the time in between hearings so there is no need to stand up for them entering or leaving as happens in other court settings.
A Magistrates or Family Proceedings court will often be a larger room, with a long desk at the top behind which the three magistrates will sit. There will be a place for the court clerk to sit and sometimes the CAFCASS officer (if it is a children’s case). These rooms are often used at different times for less serious criminal cases so don’t be put off if there is what appears to be a “dock”! You will be asked to “rise” (stand up) when the magistrates come into the room and then leave.
Always check with your lawyer whether you will be asked to say anything in a hearing. Most are reasonably informal, and generally your lawyer will do the talking for you. If you have something you need to say, whisper it to your lawyer first. Some judges are very relaxed and may ask you a few things in a very conversational way. There is a protocol that your lawyer will follow, under which the person whose application it is (or their lawyer) gets to go first.
You will almost never see judges or lawyers in wigs and gowns in family cases. The dress code is usually smart/casual. Most lawyers and judges will wear suits for court appearances.
The most important thing to remember is that the court is not there to intimidate you. It is simply a necessary part of the process if a settlement cannot be reached in any other way.
Family lawyer, Northamptonshire