For many people going to court to sort out a divorce or separation or a dispute about children can be daunting. Often people involved in a court case have never been to court before at all, and all they have to go on is what they've seen on the telly or been told by friends. For others, maybe they have been in a crimina court as a juror or witness or defendant, but even that doesn't give you much of a clue what you're in for.
It probably won't be much like the picture in your minds eye. A little bit of nerves is normal, but it probably won't be as bad as you expect. This is what you might expect (although its slightly different in every court):
What will the court be like?
- Some courts are state of the art and beautifully designed, but sadly this is not true of most. Facilities are usually pretty basic and less than ideal. Staff are almost always very friendly.
- Probably no parking. Work out your transport plans and parking before you leave.
- Increasingly court buildings are air conditioned.
- Most have disabled access, although unless you have notified the court in advance your hearing might not have been put in an accessible part of the building.
- Sadly, even the best equipped courts never seem to have enough private rooms for you to have a conversation with your lawyer or others without being overheard. We all have to make do with this.
- Unless the court is a magistrates court or is in the same building as a crown court there will almost certainly be no cafeteria. Many county courts now have at least a coffee machine and maybe a chocolate machine, or something round the corner.
- Some but not all courts have baby changing rooms, play areas. Courts do not have creche or childcare facilities.
- You will have to pay if you want to make photocopies whilst you are at court.
What should I bring to court?
- If you haven't been before a map (also work out parking, bus stops etc)
- Enough change for a meter or a cup of tea.
- Your phone.
- Paper and pen.
- Any documents which might be important and which your lawyer hasn't got (unless you have already shown these to your solicitor)
- A snack. You might be there all day.
- Something with the phone number of your solicitor and the name of the lawyer you are meeting at court, the case number and the phone number of the court on it. Incase you are running late etc. and need to let someone know.
- A book or magazine - if you think you might get bored and will be able to concentrate.
- A list of questions for your lawyer if you think this will help you remember things that are bothering you.
How long will I be at court?
- Check the notice of hearing (the document telling you when the hearing is) or ring the court. If you have a solicitor ask them.
- As a general rule if your notice of hearing says 'directions' it will be listed for 1/2 hr - 1 hr. If it says 'Financial Dispute Resolution' for an hour (but you have to attend an hour early). BUT, the time estimate the court gives a case is only a guide and most of the time you need to bank on being at court for at least 1/2 a day if not all day. Make sure you have thought about feeding the meter, picking up the kids, letting the dog out etc and made a plan. You may be at court longer than you hoped.
- The court may list more than one case at a particular time so the fact that your appointment is at, say, 10am doesn't mean you will see a Judge at 10am. The Judge will juggle the court list around to fit cases in. You may have to wait around. Try not to get too frustrated about this - people trying to sort out family cases need time to try and sort things out by agreement before going in to see the Judge and the court will usually be flexible and try and accomodate this, as well as dealing with urgent or unexpected cases. This is why its hard to predict how long you'll be at court.
Who comes into the court room?
- Your case will probably be heard in private. This means only the parties (the people whose case it is, usually the parents of a child who is being discussed or the husband and wife who are separating) can come into court with their lawyers.
- Sometimes a party will be represented by their solicitor, and sometimes by a barrister, and sometimes both will be in court. Often a barrister will come to court with a note taker who is a junior employee from the solicitors firm. And sometimes there are interpreters. If nobody objects the court will usually allow a solicitor or barrister's trainee to watch the hearing to learn what happens in court.
- Children don't usually come into court and new partners or extended family and friends usually aren't allowed in, but you can bring someone to court with you for moral support, and they can sit in the waiting area whilst the hearing is going on. If you have a lawyer your lawyer might want your friend or family members to wait outside whlist you have a private discussion.
- If a case involves social services the social workers will be allowed to come into court. Social services will probably also have a lawyer.
- If the court appoints a Guardian to represent the children (usually in cases involving social services) the guardian will come into court and may have a lawyer.
- People who are not represented by lawyers (known as litigants in person) are usually entitled to bring a 'Mackenzie Friend' (not a lawyer) into court for support, although this person is not allowed to speak for them.
- Sometimes people who have suffered domestic violence or who have mental health difficulties or physical disabilities may ask to bring a support worker into court to sit next to them and this often allowed. They will not be allowed to play any part in the hearing.
Should I bring the kids?
- Usually its better to leave the kids at home. The court will probably have very few toys or facilities for kids and they will get bored. Courts are stressful places for adults and even more stressful for kids.
- The court will not have childcare facilities and you almost certainly won't be allowed to bring the children into court, except occasionally very young babies if they are quiet. Unless you have a friend with you who can watch the children whilst you are in court (or you have been told by the court or your lawyer that you must bring the child) don't bring the children.
- Older children might want to come to court to tell the Judge what they think but they won't usually see the judge himself. Instead the court may ask a specialist social worker from CAFCASS to visit the children and find out what their views are.
- Some courts have a conciliation scheme which involves bringing older children to court. This is usually for children of 9 or over, but differs from court to court. If you are not sure about whether to bring your older children to court check the notice of hearing, ring the court or ask your solicitor.
What will the court room be like?
- Each court is different. Mostly hearings will be held in the judge's chambers (his office) around a central table, with the Judge at his desk at the top. Nobody will be wearing wigs or court robes and the Judge won't be up on a high bench looking down on everybody. He or she will probably be a relatively ordinary looking man or woman in a suit.
- Sometimes hearings are held in court rooms, which are larger rooms with rows of seats, witness boxes and a raised bench that the Judge sits behind, but even these are probably not quite what you see on the telly. Again, nobody will be wearing robes or wigs.
What will happen when I get to court?
This depends a little bit on what type of case or hearing it is. But for all cases:
- go through security and work out which court your case is being heard in: find a court list on the wall or an usher (usually wandering round with a clipboard or behind a desk, often with a black gown on) and tell them the name of the case ('Smith v Jones' etc) or the case number. Often with cases involving children the name of your case won't be on the list on the wall (to keep things private) so look for the number (bring something with the number on it to court with you)
- Sign in with the usher so someone knows your there.
- Find your lawyer. Shout out their name or ask an usher if you're feeling shy.
- If you arrive before your lawyer try and find a private corner or room to sit in whilst you wait.
- Your lawyer should explain a little bit about what is going to happen and will probably want to ask you a few questions before giving you some advice or going to speak to the other lawyers in the case.
- Your lawyer might be backwards and forwards a little bit finding out what you think and then finding out what the other party thinks and trying to reach an agreement.
- Your lawyer might be able to agree some things with the other lawyer for you (hopefully all of them). Usually the bits that are agreed will be written down by the lawyers in a draft court order before you go into court to help the judge. Your lawyer will usually go through this with you. If you all agree everything that needs to be decided on that day its called a consent order and the judge will usually agree to make that order.
- Even if you have agreed everything you still need to go into court (although its likely to be very quick).
What will happen in court?
Obviously every hearing is different but...
- You will usually sit behind your lawyer. Sometimes the judge will ask you to sit next to them.
- One of the lawyers will introduce the case - they will either summarise the basic facts or if the judge has already read the papers the things that need to be decided today. It doesn't matter which lawyer goes first - both will get a chance to speak.
- The other lawyer(s) will get a chance to respond.
- The Judge will make a decision.
- Sometimes a judge will interrupt and ask lots of questions.
- Usually you won't need to speak, unless the Judge asks you a question directly in which case you can answer him or her without going through your lawyer.
- If the hearing is a final hearing or trial the judge may want to hear some evidence from your or other people. Each lawyer and the Judge will get a chance to ask you questions.
What about giving evidence?
- address your answers to the judge and speak slowly enough so he or she can take a written note of what you are saying.
- tell the truth as clearly as you can.
- if you don't understand or didn't hear the question say so.
- if you can't remember or arent' sure say so.
- if you want to refer to a document in the court papers but aren't sure where it is say so and someone should help you find it.
- if you need a drink or a break to go to the loo or just to get yourself together say so.
- remember the other side's lawyer is just doing his or her job. the questions might be irritating or difficult but keep your cool and try and answer them fully and clearly.
- listen to the question you are being asked and be sure you understand it fully before you answer. its easy to answer the question you want to answer rather than the one you have been asked.