The family justice system exists to help families avoid disputes as far as possible but also, if disputes or problems should arise, to enable them to resolve those problems quickly and with the minimum of pain caused to those involved.
If at all possible the parties are encouraged to resolve their disputes out of court, for example through mediation – on the grounds that they are more likely to stick to any agreement if they themselves have had a role in formulating it.
When disputes do come to the courts, the cases are dealt with by magistrates and judges specially trained to deal with issues affecting families. These disputes often involve very difficult circumstances, for example relationship breakdown or child contact. Judges and magistrates work to make the circumstances of family disputes less adversarial and hearings can often be quite informal with, for example, all parties sitting around a table.
Types of family cases
Family law mainly involves two sorts of work: private and public.
Private cases are disputes that involve parents and concern their children, for example, in divorces or separations, who the children should live with, who they should see, where they should go to school or even if they can move to live abroad with one of their parents. The cases can also involve grandparents and other relatives.
Public work is the term used for cases when local authorities take action to remove children from their parents’ care because they are being hurt in some way. Such cases can lead to children being adopted and this is also dealt with by a family judge.
Judge’s role in a family case
Family circuit judges deal mainly with two sorts of work. They deal with private cases which are disputes involving parents about their children, for instance who they should live with, who they should see, where they should go to school or even if they can move to live abroad with one of their parents. The cases can involve grandparents and other relatives too.
The second sort of case is what is called public work; when local councils take action to remove children from their parents’ care because they are being hurt in some way. These cases can lead to those children being adopted and the judge deals with that as well.
The judge will usually have all the papers the day before so will know all about the case before it comes into court. Such cases can take a long time to resolve and it is important that those involved see the same judge throughout the case if possible so that there is a consistent approach to dealing with the problems that are being addressed.
The parties are usually represented by lawyers who have been specially trained to do this difficult and sensitive work. The judges are specially trained too as these cases affect peoples’ lives in a very close and sometimes devastating way. The children the judge is dealing with have their own lawyer in public cases and can have a lawyer in private cases if the judge thinks they should. In both cases the judge will have reports from an expert court officer who will talk to the children and get to know their wishes. These cases can take a long time to sort out and it is important to remember that the judge has to put the children’s interests and welfare first.
Hearings in the family courts are in private and only those who are involved can attend. The judge does not wear robes and the proceedings are much more informal than those in a criminal court so that people who are often frightened and nervous do not feel intimidated and can tell the judge what they want to say. The people in the cases will know each other, they may be angry and upset and feelings can run high. The case can cause distress and a family judge has to try to keep people calm and be sensitive to everyone’s point of view. Sometimes witnesses are too frightened or upset to be in the courtroom and arrangements can be made to help them by using a video link.
High Court – Family
Judges who sit in the High Court have jurisdiction to hear all cases relating to children and exercise an exclusive jurisdiction in wardship (see the glossary).
Judges in the High Court also hear appeals from family proceedings courts and cases transferred from the county courts or family proceedings courts.
Circuit Judge – Family
Designated Family Judges and Nominated Care Judges preside over public law cases, and can make orders for adoption, and the protection, care and supervision of children.
District Judge – Family
District judges are full-time judges who deal with the majority of cases in the county courts of England and Wales and so are heavily involved in family proceedings.
They will preside over both private cases, such as divorce, and public – those dealing with the welfare of children.
District judges of the Principal Registry are considered to be members of the High Court, and can hear both High Court and county court cases. They hear cases relating to divorce (including financial and property adjustment issues and the care and upbringing of children), civil partnerships, care proceedings, and adoption.
District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts)
The role of a district judge (magistrates’ courts) is to complement the work of the magistracy. They are legally qualified, salaried judges and they usually deal with the longer and more complex matters that come before magistrates’ courts. They will sometimes sit alone, but mostly sit on the Bench with two other magistrates. District judges (magistrates’ courts) also have jurisdiction to hear cases under the Extradition Acts and the Fugitive Offender Acts.