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Family courts

The law relating to children is governed by the Children Act 1989 and the welfare of the child is the guiding principle.

Decisions which are taken in these courts are only done with the child’s best interests in mind and the court will only make an order if it considers it essential for the child to do so. This is known as the “no order” principle in that it will only make an order if it considers it in the child’s best interests to do so. Another principle is “no delay”. Although the court process is often lengthy and time consuming, it is assumed that delays in court proceedings are detrimental to children and therefore should be avoided as far as possible.

From April 2014 the Single Family Court came into being replacing county courts and family proceedings courts with all tiers of judges sitting alongside each other in the same court 

The procedure:

  1. Appointment in front of Magistrates clerk. An administrative process where the nature of the dispute is first heard and steps decided upon to take the case further.

  2. Conciliation appointment. This takes place with a Children & Family Reporter, who talks with the parties separately or together. They may also, depending on the age of the child, talk to them. The reporters are independent, trained and have experience in dealing with children.
  3. Next the District Judge will direct that written evidence should be produced by all parties or third parties on their behalf.
  4. The court may order a welfare report in contested cases, though these can be the subject of significant delays due, mainly to a shortage of Children & Family Reporters. Once prepared the welfare report is made available to both parties and their solicitors.

Other matters

All documents in the process are confidential and are not able to be seen by anybody apart from the parties and their legal representatives. If the parties cannot agree on the arrangements for the child, an application can be made to the court, which has the power to make an interim order until a full hearing can take place.

If the case does go to a full hearing, the parties are likely to be represented, either by a solicitor or a barrister and the parties may be asked to give evidence during which time they will be asked questions both by their own representative and by the representative from the other party. The court proceedings will be held in private, they are not open to members of the public.

The child’s best interests are paramount. This is the main issue for the court to consider and it overrides any of the rights or interests of the parent. As such the court has set out a welfare checklist which the court has to consider before reaching a verdict in a case involving children.

  • The ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned considered in the light of his or her age and understanding.
  • His or her physical, emotional and educational needs.
  • The likely effect on him or her of any change in circumstances.
  • His or her age, sex, background and any characteristics which the court considers relevant.
  • Any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering including violence and, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another child or patient.
  • How capable each of the parents and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant is, of meeting the child’s needs.