This article is also published as part of Jo Carr-West’s monthly divorce series in Family Law.
Resolving family issues through the system is still a reality for many families and, despite significant changes in the court system, it can be an eye-opening experience for those involved. The depiction of family law in the media can often portray a misleading image of what the court will be like and how the day might progress. This compounds the shock that people often experience when confronted with the reality that important decisions are being made about their future by a judge.
In family law, the majority of clients wish to avoid court if they can, and understand that there are significant financial and emotional costs involved. However, if proceedings have been issued they cannot be ignored, and even if there are ongoing negotiations to try to resolve matters to avoid attendance at a hearing, it is necessary for solicitors and clients alike to prepare for court in parallel with the ongoing negotiations.
So how best can clients prepare for a hearing, and how can solicitors help them?
Understand the purpose of the hearing
As the client, make sure that you know exactly what the hearing is for, and what will and will not be discussed. Do not be afraid to ask as many questions as you want. Although you will have received advice from your solicitor about the process and what happens at different stages, it is always good to review this immediately before the hearing and make sure that your solicitor answers any queries that you may have. Also, ask them to debunk any jargon that you find confusing.
Familiarise yourself with the material
If you have had to provide evidence in the proceedings, either by way of financial disclosure in Form E or a witness statement, read back through it and refresh your memory of what you have said and which documents you have provided. This will help you to focus on what the hearing is for and can help make the process more efficient.
Is there anything missing?
Your solicitor’s job is to make sure that you are thoroughly prepared for the hearing and that everything that needs to be done or dealt with beforehand has been managed in good time. Think through, however, whether there are any additional documents that you have been asked to provide or you had intended to provide, and speak to your solicitor about these. If anything has changed or needs to be updated, let your solicitor know as soon as possible so that they can decide whether it is information that needs to be shared with the other party and the court.
Where am I going?
One significant source of anxiety can be alleviated by making sure that you work out where the court building and how you are going to get there. Ensure that you are clear not only on what time the hearing starts, but what time you need to arrive. For peace of mind, make sure that you arrange to meet your solicitor in a pre-agreed place and have a contact phone number for them in case something does not go to plan.
What will it be like?
If you get the opportunity, visit the court in advance so that you know what it looks like and you have the opportunity to start thinking about what it might be like on the day of your hearing. While it seems like a strange thing to do, it can make you feel much more comfortable and help to manage your expectations. For example, the space to be able to talk to your solicitor privately might be very limited and this can be useful to know in advance in order to prepare accordingly. If you are not able to visit the court in person, use the HM Court and Tribunal Service’s online court finder: quite often there is a picture of the building and even having a look at this will enable you to learn a little bit more about what to expect.
Depending on the nature of the hearing you are attending, you can expect a lot of waiting time at court. During this time your solicitor and/or barrister will spend some time discussing with your partner’s counsel some of the key issues that need to be resolved, to see if any common ground can be reached. This might include discussing the issues in the case or the practical steps (called directions) which they want to ask the court to order. The purpose of this is to try to retain as much control over the process as possible and to use the time at court as efficiently as possible.
As the client, it might feel very strange that conversations are taking place about your case without you being involved in them. Again, always ask your solicitor to explain what is happening. Nothing can be agreed without your instructions, and it is your solicitor’s job to make sure that you understand and are able to make informed decisions.
Taking someone to court with you is sometimes helpful, and you should discuss this possibility with your solicitor in advance. New partners are not necessarily a good idea, but a good friend, parent or sibling can be a useful source of support. Third parties are often able to digest information in a more objective way and can be helpful sounding boards if necessary.
Don’t be embarrassed
You will realise when you get to court that you are not alone in having to make use of the judicial system. It is more common than you think, and not something to feel ashamed about. Most people in court are there because they have tried to resolve an issue in other ways but, whether formally or otherwise, were unable to.
What should I wear?
Clients are often anxious about this. Your solicitor will be able to guide you about what will be appropriate, but feeling comfortable in what you are wearing and the image your outfit projects is the most important factor.
Have a good breakfast
This can be some of the most useful advice a solicitor can give a client the day before a hearing. Being in court is an inevitably draining experience, and it can be a long day. This will have an impact on your capacity to make decisions and properly process what is happening.
Although court proceedings in a family law context may seem incredibly daunting, following these simple steps will help ensure maximum comfort and minimum surprise when it comes to the day of proceedings. With all the varying contributing factors involved in this process, following the above list to promote ease and comfort is the best way to prepare for this complicated and often draining experience.
Partner, Hunters incorporating May, May & Merrimans