This article sets out the different types of hearing that you may attend in family proceedings, including the first hearing, dispute resolution appointment, fact finding hearings, and final hearings.

What are family courts and what do they do?

The County Court and Magistrates Court were combined in 2014 and are now collectively called the Family Court. They primarily make decisions about children and finances when a couple is not able to agree how these disputes should be settled.

Children Proceedings

First hearing dispute resolution appointment (FHDRA)

This is the first hearing following an application and helps the court to identify issues between the parties at an early stage. It also serves to determine whether the parties are capable of reaching an agreement. There is also likely to be a CAFCASS officer present.

The judge, or magistrates, and the CAFCASS officer will make every effort to assist the parties to reach an agreement. Sometimes a mediator may be present in the precincts of the courthouse to discuss the merits of mediation, and if the parties have not attempted mediation, the court may order they do so before proceedings begin.

CAFCASS will have prepared a “Schedule 2 letter” before the hearing which should have been sent to both parties before the hearing. Background checks, where the children live and with whom will be included in the letter, alongside details of any police and social services involvement. If the parties cannot agree, the court will look into the areas of dispute and consider the following case management questions, including:

  • What, if any, issues are agreed and what are the key issues to be determined?
  • Should the matter be listed for a fact-find hearing?
  • Are there any further interim orders which can be made, e.g. indirect, supervised, or supported contact, pending the Dispute Resolution Appointment (DRA) or final hearing?
  • What directions are required to ensure the application is ready for a DRA or final hearing, such as witness statements, reports, etc?
  • Should the application be listed straightaway for a final hearing?

Dispute Resolution Appointment (DRA)

The DRA is usually listed following provision of a section 7 CAFCASS report, or other expert report, if this is considered to be helpful and in the interests of the child. At the DRA, the court will:

  • Identify the key issues to be determined and the extent to which those issues can be narrowed or resolved
  • Consider whether the DRA can be used as a final hearing
  • Narrow or resolve the issues by hearing evidence from the parties or representations from their solicitors
  • Identify the evidence to be heard on the issues remaining in dispute at the final hearing
  • Give case management directions including: filing of further evidence, statements, skeleton arguments, bundles, and listing the final hearing

Fact Finding Hearing

A fact finding hearing is limited to hearing evidence surrounding particular allegations where the court decides whether or not the incidents complained of actually occurred. Most commonly, these allegations concern domestic abuse, neglect, or emotional and physical harm. Evidence is heard, which usually includes cross-examination of the parties. When making a decision, the judge must take into account the allegations made by each party and decide if they are true or false based on the civil court test of the balance of probabilities.

Final Hearing

At a final hearing, the judge will consider all available evidence, including that provided by the parties, any relevant CAFCASS report (or other expert report), and any information provided by other organisations such as the local authority or police. If there has been a fact finding hearing, the judge will consider any findings made during those proceedings. The judge may make no order, or may decide to make a child arrangements order setting out residence and/or contact arrangements.

Financial Proceedings

The First Appointment (FA)

The court will usually schedule this hearing between 12 and 16 weeks after the application was submitted to the court. As with the FHDRA set out above, the purpose of the FA is to define, and if possible, narrow, the issues in dispute between the parties. At the hearing, the court will look at both parties’ disclosure on their Forms E, define what they remain in dispute about and decide how best to resolve it.

The entire purpose of the FA is to ensure that the court and the parties have all the information required to resolve the case. The court will make further directions if this is deemed necessary, or if requested by either party, to make sure all relevant information is before the court at the next hearing.

If both parties agree, the FA can be used to negotiate a settlement, although the court tends to be given advanced notice of this from both parties. This is done using a Form G and asks that the hearing be converted to a longer Financial Dispute Resolution Hearing to short-circuit matters.

Financial Dispute Resolution Hearing (FDR)

This is the second court hearing and allows parties to freely discuss matters and negotiate with the assistance of the judge. From all the documents filed at court, the judge will have a view of the whole case and can therefore give an indication as to the likely outcome at a final hearing. Although this indication is not legally binding, it can be extremely useful in focussing the parties on a probable settlement. Once the judge has given their indication, the parties are then sent out of court to discuss matters further. This may happen repeatedly during the period at court as parties slowly edge towards agreement.

Most parties reach an agreement at this stage, in which case the judge can endorse it and make a binding order. Although the majority of cases settle at or before the FDR, sometimes this is simply not possible. Here, the court will list the matter for a final hearing.

Final Hearing

The judge hearing the FDR cannot be the judge at any final hearing, to enable the case to be viewed with fresh eyes. Rules require the parties to put open proposals for settlement 21 days after the unsuccessful FDR, in addition to any “without prejudice” offers they may have made. The final hearing is a more traditional style of hearing, where parties give evidence under oath, answer questions put by the opposing legal representative, barristers give speeches, and the judge delivers their decision.