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A hearing is a court proceeding where parties and lawyers come together and present their evidence and arguments to a judge. In the Family Proceedings Court, the judge is assisted by two lay magistrates. In the Family Care Centre the judge is not assisted by lay magistrates.

In family cases, hearings provide the opportunity for the judge to hear from both parties and ask for the information or evidence they need so they can reach a decision.

The judge leads the hearing and manages the process. This is known as case management. Both parties should have equal opportunities to present their case.

You can agree a decision with the other party out of court at any time – see Agreeing a decision out of court.

Changes due to COVID-19

Due to ongoing COVID-19 measures, the courts are not operating normally and there are now three different ways of attending family court hearings:

  • Remote or online hearings: where all parties attend remotely via video links or phone. The judge and court staff may be in the court room but other persons, such as the other party, or a Child Court Officer, may not be. In a Family Proceedings Court two lay magistrates may also attend remotely, but may not be visible on video link.
  • In person or face-to-face hearings: where the parties, their lawyers and the judge are in the same court room.
  • Hybrid hearings: where the judge and at least one party attend in the court room while others join by phone or video link.

There are many practical issues to consider when you have a hearing coming up and you do not have a legal representative. See some practical guidance on Attending hearings.

Who's who in a Family Proceedings Court hearing

There are a number of people who have different roles usually present in a family court hearing, whether remote or in person.

When a hearing is in person in the Family Proceedings Court, this is what the typical court room will look like when one party is a Litigant in Person.

A family proceedings courtroom

Judge and lay members – often the family court judge is accompanied by two lay members, known as magistrates. Magistrates are not legally trained but appointed by the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission. Their role is to ‘serve the community’ and they should have a good level of social awareness.

Court clerk – a member of the court staff who helps the judge with the list of cases for the day, the case files and paperwork. In remote hearings, they manage the online access.

Court Children’s Officer (CCO) – the court-appointed social worker who may be appointed by the judge to investigate the circumstances of the family and make recommendations to the judge. CCOs are independent from the court and work for the Health and Social Care Trusts, not for the court service, NICTS. Their professional guidelines direct them to make recommendations based on what they consider to be in the child’s best interest. They might be called to present their assessment by the judge.

The applicant party – this is the party who made the application for the Order. If the applicant party is legally represented their solicitor or barrister (legal representative) may attend on their behalf. The applicant may wait outside the courtroom or not attend at all. If the applicant party is not represented, they should be present and they can bring a McKenzie Friend as a support.

The respondent party – this is the party who is answering the application for the Order. If the respondent party is legally represented their solicitor or barrister (legal representative) may attend on their behalf. The respondent may wait outside the courtroom or not attend at all. If the respondent party is not represented, they should be present and they can bring a McKenzie Friend as a support.

In some cases, the judge will appoint a Guardian ad litem who will represent the interests of the child. The Guardian ad litem will be legally represented.

Security Guard / Usher – usually there is a security guard or a court usher who can call the parties into the court-room.

Other people can only attend a family case hearing if they have the permission of the judge and the parties. Other solicitors or barristers may remain in the court-room until their case is heard. If you are called into the court-room, you can ask the judge for the people not involved in your case to leave the room.

Different types of hearings

In a family court case, there are different types of hearing. They have different purposes. The number of hearings depends on the complexity of the case; some cases have many, others very few.

Each case is different and, apart from the final hearing, each hearing may have several different outcomes.

First directions hearing

This is the first hearing in a case and it is also known as a directions hearing or a case management hearing.

The purpose of the hearing is for the judge to narrow down the issues that are to be decided, and to give instructions on how the case will proceed.

Both the applicant and respondent parties and their legal representatives, if they have them, must attend the directions hearing. The judge will decide on the process, consider how the child’s best interests can be considered, how the child’s wishes and feelings will be obtained and set the timetable for the case.

If you believe that you cannot meet the timetable that the judge proposes, either inform your legal representative or if you are unrepresented, you should inform the judge at the hearing itself, and suggest a timeframe you feel is achievable.

As it may be many months before the final Order is made it is possible that the judge may make an interim Order.

There are several possible outcomes of a first directions hearing – see Outcomes of a hearing.

Review hearing

The number of hearings in a case varies depending on the case. There is no standard number. The judge will decide if another hearing is needed at the end of each hearing.

The judge may request review or case management hearings to check on the progress of the case. The judge may want to check any interim contact and any documents or reports that need to be prepared to help them reach a decision.

If the judge requested evidence or information at a previous hearing, you may be required to submit it before the next hearing to give the parties time to read it and prepare their response so it can be discussed – see Submitting documents for your case.

The judge may have a final review hearing to ensure that all information and reports are available and the case is ready for a fact-finding hearing or the final hearing. The judge will also consider if a final Order can be made without the need for a final hearing.

There are several possible outcomes of a review hearing – see Outcomes of a hearing.

Fact-finding hearing

The judge can also require a fact-finding hearing. This could include any allegations of harm or likely harm which the judge may need to bring to light and which may affect the outcome of the case.

An example might be where there are allegations of domestic violence or emotional and physical harm to the child. The parties may be cross-examined on any witness statements and allegations – see Cross-examination & giving evidence.

You can also have witnesses give evidence with the court’s advance permission. After hearing the evidence, the judge will decide whether the alleged incidents happened or not and how this may affect the case or any interim Order.

There are several possible outcomes of a fact-finding hearing – see Outcomes of a hearing.

Final hearing

If there is a final hearing, the judge will make a final decision on the application for the Order. A final hearing usually involves the parties, any witnesses and other professionals like the Court Children’s Officer giving evidence. This may also involve cross-examination.

Usually, the sequence of oral statements and evidence at a hearing starts with the applicant, followed by the respondent and then the CCO and/or the Guardian ad litem.

The parties may be asked for a short opening speech to briefly outline their case.

The parents or persons with parental responsibility in the case will be asked to go into the witness box. There they will be asked to ‘adopt’ any witness statements. This is giving a sworn oath or affirmation that the statement is true and accurate.

They will also be cross-examined on their evidence. This means that the other party’s legal representative (or the other unrepresented party) directly questions the parent to test the evidence. It can be a stressful experience to be cross-examined.

If one of the parents does not have a legal representative, they may have to cross-examine the other party. It is up to the judge in this situation to make sure the self-represented person asks relevant questions in a polite manner and is able to present their case.

It is likely the judge will also ask questions during the presentation of the evidence and cross-examination – see Cross-examination & giving evidence.

The parties may be asked to make closing arguments or provide a written summary. If either party are not called to make closing arguments or a written summary, and wish to do so, they may ask the judge for permission to do so.

The judge will then consider the evidence and arguments. The judge will either make an Order, or not, based on what they consider to be in the child's best interests. This is usually immediately or a short time after the judge considers the evidence and arguments.

The judge will usually provide reasons for their decisions. You should take notes of the reasons and ask for clarification if you are unsure, especially if you do not have a legal representative.

Either party can request the judge or the court officer to provide written reasons from the judge. However, this may not be granted.

If no Order is made or the application refused, the existing child arrangements remain in place.

If one or both of the parties wish to apply for another Order, the judge may also place restrictions on the parties preventing them from doing so for a set period of time. This is called an Article 179(14) Order – see Family court Orders. The parties named in this Order have to get the judge’s permission to make an application before they can make one.

Attending hearings

Find out more about the practicalities involved in Attending hearings.