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The Family Court

What the Family Court deals with:

The Family Court handles:

  • parental disputes over the upbringing of children
  • local authority intervention to protect children
  • decrees relating to divorce or the dissolution of a civil partnership
  • financial support for children after divorce or relationship breakdown
  • some aspects of domestic violence
  • adoption
  • special guardianship
  • surrogacy
  • forced marriage protection
  • female genital mutilation protection

Family matters are dealt with in the Family Court or in the Family Division of the High Court. The Family Court judiciary is made up of lay magistrates, District Judge (Magistrates Court), District Judges, Circuit Judges and High Court Judges. The court is based on 43 local centres (each presided over by a ‘Designated Family Judge’) and at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Magistrates undergo specialist training before they sit in the Family Court, where procedures are very different from the criminal courts.

There are two types of case concerning children: public and private law.

Public law

Public law cases are brought by local authorities or an authorised person (currently only the NSPCC) and include matters such as:

  • care orders, which give parental responsibility for the child concerned to the local authority applying for the order
  • supervision orders, which place the child under the supervision of their local authority
  • emergency protection orders, which are used to ensure the immediate safety of a child by taking them to a place of safety, or by preventing their removal from a place of safety

Public law cases will be allocated within the Family Court to the appropriate level of judiciary, and may be reallocated as the proceedings develop.

Private Law

Private law cases are brought by private individuals, generally in connection with divorce or the parents’ separation.

Order types include:

  • parental responsibility
  • financial applications
  • special guardianship orders, which give a special guardian legal responsibility without removing legal responsibility from the birth parents
  • orders under Section 8 of the Children Act 1989, which can be used to settle where a child lives, parental contact and other specific disputes. A prohibited steps order may also be made – for example, preventing a parent from moving a child to another country.


An adoption order made by a court removes the rights, duties and obligations of the natural parents or guardian and gives them to the adoptive parents. On adoption the child becomes, for virtually all purposes in law, the child of its adoptive parents.

Marriage matters

The Family Court can end a marriage in two ways – by a decree absolute of divorce, which ends a valid marriage, or by a decree of nullity, which finds that the marriage was not valid in the first place.

Reasons for declaring a marriage legally invalid include:

  • either party being under the age of 16
  • either party being already married
  • the parties are prohibited from marrying, for example father and daughter.

Voidable marriages are those which are not consummated, where one party was suffering from an infectious venereal disease, or where the woman was pregnant by someone else at the time of the marriage.

The Family Court can also grant a judicial separation, which does not dissolve the marriage but recognises that the parties no longer live together.

Domestic abuse

Where domestic abuse has occurred the Family Court may make two types of order:

  • a non-molestation order, which can either prohibit particular behaviour or general molestation
  • an occupation order, which can define or regulate rights of occupation of the home

Anyone breaching a non-molestation order can be arrested.

The Family Court also has powers to order that a suspected abuser may be removed from the home, rather than the child.

The Court of Protection

The Court of Protection was established under the terms of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which came into force on 1 October 2007.

It is a specialist court which makes specific decisions or appoints other people known as deputies to make decisions on behalf of people who lack the capacity to do so for themselves.

The Court of Protection can:

  • decide whether a person ‘has capacity’ (is able) to make a particular decision for themselves
  • make declarations, decisions or orders on financial or welfare matters affecting people who lack capacity to make these decisions
  • appoint a deputy to make ongoing decisions for people lacking capacity to make those decisions
  • decide whether a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) or Enduring Power of Attorney (EPA) is valid
  • remove deputies or attorneys who fail to carry out their duties
  • hear cases concerning objections to register an LPA or EPA

Cases are heard by circuit, district and High Court judges, at the central registry in Holborn, and at courts throughout England and Wales.

Hearings are normally in public, but the court retains the power to sit in private.

The media and the Family Court

On 27 April 2009, all levels of the Family Court were opened to accredited members of the media.

Courts are still able to restrict attendance if a child’s welfare requires it, or if it is necessary to do so for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses – who can request this of the court if they feel it is necessary.

Courts also have powers to restrict what can be reported to protect the welfare of children and families, or to relax reporting rules in individual cases.