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 CAFCASS officer 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 to represent the children for the rest of the hearings. This guardian is still part of CAFCASS – see more on how to deal with guardians in 9.1. 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, that is where your live, especially when “parental alienation” is alleged (see Section 15).
If you and the father are both litigants in person, that is you don’t have lawyers and are representing yourselves, your ex will not be allowed to ask 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 inappropriate 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.
UPDATE Stop press: at the time of writing the Domestic Abuse Act has recently become law and there will be further protections which we will incorporate here.
Under PD12J the court must decide whether to have a fact-finding hearing to consider the domestic abuse allegations. It is at this first hearing that the judge will decide whether or not to order a fact finding. If you feel you have evidence that you want the court to consider, it is your right to request a fact-finding hearing, though this is 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 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 what happens to the children in the meantime 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.