Demystifying the Family Court

SA Law's Family Solicitor Christine Caffrey discusses misconceptions about the Family Courts and explains what they are really like.

The vast majority of people have never set foot in a courtroom and probably consider themselves fortunate as a result. For those people who have been to court previously, they may not have been involved in family law proceedings. There are a number of misconceptions about going to court that can sometimes affect a person’s decision-making when a family dispute arises.

Family court is nothing like the on-screen legal dramas shown on television. Sadly, the family court is nowhere near as glamorous as programmes such as Ally McBeal, The Good Wife or Suits would have you believe. In fact, the majority of English legal dramas tend to focus on the criminal justice system with a Judge and Jury sitting in a large courtroom ready to deliver a ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ verdict at the programmes’ conclusion. This set-up could not be further from the reality of the family court.

Depending on the type of case being heard you will either be before magistrates or before a Judge. There is no jury in family proceedings. If you are making or responding to an application relating to children, you will generally be heard by a bench of magistrates, unless it is a particularly complex matter, or there are international elements to the case, in which case your case may be before a Judge.

Magistrates are lay people. They are members of the local community who give up their time voluntarily. They are not legally trained but are assisted by a legal advisor in terms of the applicable law and procedure.

Financial matters or more complex children matters will be heard by a Judge. Judges are invariably former barristers or solicitors that have decided to become a Judge. Many Judges are part-time, working both as a Judge and as a barrister/solicitor. This means that they have experience from both sides of the bench and are able to understand the issues quickly. A Judge is ultimately there to determine an outcome if an agreement is not reached but until that point, they will often encourage the parties to try to reach agreement between them. Even at court, if you can reach an agreement in the corridor outside the courtroom, it is possible to go before the Judge and ask him/her to approve an agreement you have reached, rather than to have one imposed upon you.

Another myth is that the Judges and Barristers all wear traditional wigs and gowns. This is not true in the family court. The family court adopt a slightly more relaxed (yet formal) approach and legal representatives are not required to wear wigs or gowns.

The courtroom itself can be an anti-climax. If you have been watching television, you may have expectations of a grand church-like building with court rooms filled with rows of wooden benches and words in Latin adorning the walls. If you are appearing in the High Court of the Family Division at the Royal Courts of Justice then this is exactly what you will find. However, if you are attending your local family court you may have a very different experience. The Family court very often sits at the local county courts which are invariably contained within office blocks and do not look from the outside like a court at all. Inside the waiting area is much like the waiting room at the doctors, or the dentist. The court room is often no bigger than a small meeting room with a large desk which on one side sits the Judge, and on the other side sits the parties and their representatives.

If you do require the assistance of the Family Court to resolve issues arising following the breakdown of a relationship, it is not as scary as many people envisage. We hope that the examples we have given above offer some reassurance in answer to some common myths and concerns that we, as family lawyers, often hear in relation to ‘going to court’.