The first hearing (which is usually about an hour long) will either be in front of magistrates or a district judge. It might also be called a Directions Hearing. If for some reason, for example illness, you can’t attend on the day you should write to the court to explain why and to ask for an adjournment. You will need to show medical evidence for your absence, and you should inform all other parties that you are requesting an adjournment.
Once there’s a date for the hearing you should be contacted by a CAFCASS officer who will speak to you (and separately to the father) on the phone. If you have any concerns about domestic violence or other reasons why you dispute the father having contact with the children you need to tell the Guardian right away. They will then write a “safeguarding letter” to the first hearing to say if they think there are issues which need to be investigated further.
If the CAFCASS officer recommends that there are issues that need to be investigated, the court will appoint a Children’s Guardian (still CAFCASS, see more on how to deal with Guardians in 9.1) to represent the children for the rest of the hearings. They will be asked to write what’s called a Section 7 report where you and the father will be interviewed. Once a Guardian has been appointed, cases can take much longer and you can feel under great pressure. Disputes about contact can lead to changes of residence, especially where “parental alienation” is alleged (see 22).
If you and the father are both litigants in person, your ex will not be allowed to as you any questions directly but he can put questions through the judge. The judge is supposed to look at the questions in advance and remove any that are not appropriate or harassing. The judge can dismiss some or all of the questions and ask their own. Remember, you can give evidence by video link or behind screens.
Stop press: at the time of writing the Domestic Abuse Bill is going through parliament and once it has been brought into law, there will be further protections which we will incorporate here.
Under PD12J the court must consider whether to have a fact finding when allegations of domestic abuse have been made and the judge will decide during this first hearing whether to order a fact finding. This should always be considered in domestic abuse cases and if you feel you have evidence that you want the court to consider it is your right to request a fact finding, though not always granted. The court needs to be clear that you have enough evidence on which to proceed such as medical or police evidence or that of a witness.
In court you need to be very clear what you are asking for in the long term and what you want the immediate arrangements to be. There are likely to be at least two and sometimes more hearings before the arrangements are finalised and the process can take months, so the interim is important. You should specify what if any contact you think the father should have while the court hearings are going on; he will also say what he wants, and the judge will decide. If you do not agree with the judge’s decision be sure to object and say why.
After each court hearing there will be a Court Order which will set out what has been agreed between the parties and what the court has decided. The order will say what the next steps are with deadlines for any documents (including your statement) to be submitted in time for the next hearing.
As a rule, court “bundles” – which contain all the documents relevant to the case – are usually made by the person who has brought the application. But if you are representing yourself and the other side has a lawyer, ask the judge to order them to compile the bundle – it is a lot of work and important to get it right! If you do end up having to compile a bundle please see our example of a layout in Appendix 4, and remember that the bundle must be served on all parties four working days before each hearing and the court must receive a copy no less than two working days before the hearing.