Published on July 18, 2023

Family law and family life is complicated, or at least can be! Courts are there to apply family law to help find solutions to problems which spouses, partners or parents (collectively called “parties to the proceedings”) can’t find themselves by negotiation. So courts approach their problem-solving role in a methodical way which is clear, by the gathering of all relevant information to equip the judge to make the best decision possible, by making “directions orders” specifying what steps are to happen to gather all evidence. This is called a Directions Hearing.

Whether a problem relates to children, money or the relationship itself every court application starts with a set form of Application giving all basic information, but that is far from a complete picture. There are always two perspectives (at least) and sometimes there are other people who know and can contribute information for the court. In financial cases, these may include property valuers, or pension experts; in children cases, Cafcass officers and sometimes experts such as psychologists.

Directions hearing - sign in from of sunset

In some cases, as soon as court proceedings start, the court issues standard (the usual) directions. This happens for example in every financial case, when a time-table is set, and those starting or on the receiving end of proceedings are told what documents they need to file (send to the court) or serve (send to their opponent) and by what time-scale. In other cases there may be one or more “directions hearings” , that is a hearing when the judge will make orders as to how and when missing information is to be gathered.

Courts have tried to standardize this process as much as possible, so that the norms of how problems are to be solved is known from the outset, and so that as much preparation as possible can be carried out in advance, because once the court has set a time-table, it will expect it to be followed to avoid unnecessary delay.

If orders are not obeyed, the court does not automatically keep an eye on the progress of the case but expects someone to alert the court to what is happening. In those cases an enforcement orders can be sought, in which case the person who has not complied with the previous directions order may be ordered to carry out a task by a certain date or face imprisonment, as this is the court’s main sanction, by means of what the court calls a “penal notice”,  a formal notice warning of the consequences of not obeying a court order.

Apart from gathering of evidence, the court has to consider setting a hearing date which could be (a) a date when the court will check on progress or (b) a final hearing date when the decision will be made.

So if you are attending a directions hearing appointment:

1) Always think about what information the court will need to make its decision

2) Go to court prepared with solutions, not problems for the judge

3) If you think that you will need an expert of some description go on the internet and read FPR Practice Direction 25. You’ll see how much advance thought has to be given to such matters. If your case involves any allegation of harm in a children case, read Practice Direction 12J. In all children cases, it’s Practice Direction 12B; in financial cases, 9A. There are practice directions covering every conceivable situation.

4) Get advice. These are complicated matters. The Directions hearing sets the whole “direction” of the case. If you start off taking the wrong fork in the road it can take enormous effort to get a case back on track, sometimes that is not possible as once a track is set it is extremely hard to go back if a mistake is made.

Family law solicitors and barristers live and breathe these matters day by day and are well placed to help, even if limited to giving you guidance to enable you to do as much of the work yourself to save legal costs.

Postscript. You may also be interested in this article on how to co-parent with an ex partner. If you want to read more around break-ups and the way the law works, you can find a number of easy to read books in our specialist book shop.

Norman Hartnell contributed to Separating With Children 101′, 3rd edition, (Bath Publishing 2023).

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Going Through Family Court

What happens when we go through the family court? At every family court hearing, all parties should be given a chance to have their say before any decisions are made, but the judge will need to focus everyone on the things s/he needs to hear about in order to make a decision. Before the majority of cases come before a family court, forms will have been filled in which gives the judge the basics of each case. Questions will be asked during the hearing and you or your legal representation will be expected to answer all questions calmly and as accurately as possible.

Decision Making When Going Through Family Courts

Family courts reach final decisions over a period of time. Sometimes a judge will need to postpone dealing with some issues and just deal with part of the dispute at one hearing, perhaps because some information is missing or there isn’t time. Court hearings should proceed on the basis that everyone, including the judge, has seen in advance all the paperwork relied upon by any party. There are various types of hearing and if you are going through the family courts it would be sensible to familiarise yourself with the type of hearing you will be attending. Directions hearings, for example, are shorter hearings and are really there to get the case ready for a hearing where a full decision will be made. Another hearing you may want to read more about is a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA). This refers to the first hearing in connection with an application about children (for example a dispute about where children should live), at which the court will consider safeguarding checks on the family and will attempt to resolve the matter or identify the range of dispute if this is not possible. This hub has a lot of material on family courts and what you can expect there. There are informative articles on CAFCASS and how they are appointed and advise a court in your case. We recommend careful reading of all this material as family courts are different and work in ways that you may not be used to.

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