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The First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment

What is a First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment?

A First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) is the first court hearing after an application has been made to court in private family law. It is held to assist the court in identifying issues between the parties at an early stage and to see if it is possible for the parties to reach an agreement. A CAFCASS Officer should also be present.

What is CAFCASS?

CAFCASS is an organisation which looks after the welfare of children involved in Family Law proceedings. A CAFCASS Officer (also called Family Reporter or Family Court Advisor) is trained in social work but independent from Social Services. They carry out a number of different duties including investigations into family circumstances and make recommendations to the Court [see also our CAFCASS Pack]. They may also seek to assist the family if ordered to do so by the court.

How should I prepare?

While there can be exceptions, the court now expects parents to attempt mediation prior to applying to court. Please refer to our free pack on Mediation for further information.

If you do not have a solicitor, we recommend you write a Position Statement. A position statement is a useful document which is not obligatory (unless ordered by the court) but is useful in that it gives the court a brief outline of your position in advance of the hearing. For yourself, it ensures there is a written record of your ´position´ at that time, so points don´t get forgotten in the stress of proceedings. A position statement may help bring a case to an early conclusion if the other party accepts your position. It can be used to give you a brief plan of what you want to achieve at the hearing.

As the name implies, it is a written statement setting out your ´position´, which at a FHDRA should briefly setting out what it is you want the court to do, and why. At later hearings, position statements can also be useful to give both the court and the other party to proceedings pre-warning of any change in your ´position´ (e.g. what you want to happen).

You'll find a guide to Writing a Position Statement and also an MSWord Template for a Position Statement in our Shop.

In preparation for the hearing:

Be prepared for the possibility that you will be at court all day. You might find your hearing is delayed. You might find the judge asking that you meet with CAFCASS outside of the court room to see if an agreement can be reached. Fill the parking metre, and ensure you have a contingency plan in place to have someone else look after the children if they are currently in your care, and you are delayed.

When deciding what to say in court, or in your position statement, consider the practicalities for any arrangements for the children that you want the court to make. Make sure any arrangements consider the children´s welfare, are realistic, and are in the children´s best interests. We also recommend you also consider the children´s needs in respect of their relationship with the other parent. The more reasonable you are, the more likely the other party is to be reasonable, and the court will likely approve if they see you to be fair and child focused. The court expects you to be focused on your children´s needs, so try to avoid criticism of the other party unless their behaviour or actions genuinely present a risk to the children. Someone may have been a lousy partner, but still be a loving parent. There is a wealth of research that supports that children fair best when both parents play a significant role in their lives, and also research which shows that children face harm when one parent´s role in their life is diminished. You will find this research on our website.

What happens at an FHDRA?

The judge (or magistrates) and the CAFCASS Officer will attempt to assist the parties to reach agreement. Sometimes, there will be a mediator in the court building who might also assist the parties, and if the parties have not yet attempted mediation, the court may order that they do so before court proceedings commence.

Prior to the hearing starting, CAFCASS should have prepared a 'Schedule 2 Letter' which should be shared with both parties (unless doing so would put either party or the children at risk and/or the document contains information which is sensitive of which the other party is unaware). The Schedule 2 Letter will include background checks on the parties, who the parents are and who the parents live with.

If the parties can reach agreement at the FHDRA, a final order may be made setting out the details of the agreement, if the court deems it to be in the children´s best interests.

If the parties cannot reach agreement, the court will seek to determine the areas where they disagree, and the reasons why. The court will then consider what evidence and/or may be required to assist a judge or magistrates at a future hearing to decide on what is in the children´s best interests.

If the case concerns decisions about who the child will live with, visit or otherwise have contact with and serious allegations are made, the judge may decide not to permit contact while matters are investigated. This does not mean that the court considers you to be guilty. The judge/magistrates and CAFCASS may propose that contact be supervised and/or at a contact centre while matters are investigated. You too might suggest this in these circumstances. If there are no serious concerns, the court may order that there be contact immediately pending a final order at a future hearing (after any investigations are carried out, and evidence is submitted and heard). Do not panic if allegations are made, as sadly, this is quite common, and the court has to determine whether the allegations are genuine, spurious, or simply due to one party´s anxiety. Instead, concentrate on putting together the evidence to support you.

What type of evidence may be called for?

At the FHDRA, the judge may direct evidence be prepared for a future hearing.

The types of evidence most commonly called for are:

Other evidence will depend on the specifics of the case. These may include psychological evaluations, medical reports, drug tests etc. If you wish to submit any specific evidence, or call witnesses in support of your position at a future hearing, ensure you ask the judge´s permission and that directions are made permitting this.

What happens after the FHDRA?

If the parties reach an agreement, the court may decide to formally record this agreement in a court order which sets out the arrangements for the children.

If the parties cannot reach an agreement, a further hearing date will be set, and the judge/magistrates will provide a written copy of their decision as to the next course of action. These are called ´Directions´ and are likely to ask the parties to write a statement, may ask for a CAFCASS investigation and report etc. If CAFCASS are to write a report, the next hearing date is likely to be listed for two weeks after their report is prepared. The court may decide to make a temporary order (also called an interim order) which may last until the next hearing or beyond.

Michael Robinson © 2014

Family law information for parents whose children are resident in England and Wales

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