The vast majority of Family Lawyers will do everything they can to keep their client’s out of Court and try to settle the cases they run amicably (if possible) and as early on as possible to reduce legal costs.
A good lawyer achieves this through making sure their clients are well advised as to the range of potential outcomes, has identified issues that may affect the range of outcomes, has worked to resolve information disputes by obtaining valuations and disclosure and provided their client with as accurate as possible costs estimates. This information allows a client to make an informed assessment of risk and weigh the cost/benefit of settling early.
Early settlements are also achieved by maintaining a respectful and non-confrontational communication style with the lawyer representing the other party or self-represented litigant. Third parties such as mediators are also of enormous assistance in resolving disputes at the early stages.
However, despite the best efforts of lawyers and parties sometimes it is necessary to file a proceeding in Court in order to move it forward or resolve a dispute that is intractable.
To be frank, in any civilised society there is only two options to resolve a dispute, and they are by an agreement reached between the parties or by a Court making an order.
What does it mean to go to Court?
For Family Law disputes there are three Courts that most often exercise the jurisdiction conferred by the Family Law Act 1975. These are:
- State Magistrates Court exercising jurisdiction under the Family Law Act 1975. It is not often that a Family Law proceeding would be filed in a State Magistrates Court. Typically, a State Magistrate Court would only be involved to make a “Consent Order” and not hear a disputed matter.
- The Family Court which is the “higher Court” exercising jurisdiction under the Family Law Act 1975. The Family Court typically hears matters that are more complex such as complex property matters, matters where serious allegation of risk towards children are made and other particular matters such as adoption or disputed medical procedures for children.
- The Federal Circuit Court is the “workhorse” Court in Family Law matters. This Court is likely where your matter will be commenced, and this Court handles the majority of the “usual” property and parenting disputes.
Many people think that once their matter “goes to Court” it will be heard by the Judge at the first date and resolved. This is not the case. Once a matter is filed in Court a process commences that may take many Court appearances before a resolution can occur.
Why are there numerous Court appearance before a Judge can make a decision?
This is necessary because the reality is matters in dispute are numerous, Judges are few and Court time is expensive for the taxpayer.
Once a matter is started in Court by filing an Application, the basic process is for the Court to make directions for evidence to be gathered before a “hearing” can occur and for the parties to make further attempts at negotiation or mediation.
The Court process is formal and must be fair to both parties so there are rules that must apply to how the matter is conducted and how the Court receives evidence. Thus, Court appearances have different designations as to what is to occur on a particular day. Again, agreements between the parties are encouraged and almost any agreement can be made, and the matter finalised, regardless of what the purpose of the day is.
The types of Court days are:
- Mention or Directions – A “mention” is a Court date when the Judge will be informed as to what the matter is about, what the issues are, and what “directions” may need to be made for the collection of evidence or further Court dates. The first date after the Application and Response is filed is usually a mention unless there is some urgency to making an “interim” decision. In the vast majority of cases interim orders for children and what needs to occur by way of directions will be negotiated and agreed at the first Court date.
- Interim Application – This is a Court date when the Court must make a decision on a particular issue before the main hearing. Interim hearings are a short process of up to 2 hours duration only. This would occur for example where the interim parenting orders could not be agreed or in a property matter where assets needed to be protected, a party wanted to exclude another party from living at the home or a party needed maintenance or access to some funds. An interim hearing is conducted by affidavits without cross examination and therefore the Court cannot determine any disputed facts.
- Callover – This is when the Court will allocate a trial date if the matter is ready to proceed. Trial time is valuable so before allocating this time to a matter the Judge will want to know how many witnesses, how long the matter might take, whether any issues have been resolved etc.
- Trial – This is likely the last Court date. A trial is where the parties are cross examined on their affidavit, lawyers make submissions and the Judge will make “finding of fact”. This means that after hearing the evidence the Judge will determine what evidence is found to be true. The Judge will then apply the relevant law to those facts.
There are other Court dates that can occur such as “Conciliation Conference” which are similar to mediation or Appeals if a party believes a Judge made an error.
The good news is that most matters don’t make it all the way to a trial. Most matters settle at some point along the way once the benefit of further evidence is obtained, the Judge may focus attention on a particular issue, costs increase and as other issues are resolved creating motivation for closure.
What should you do when you’re in Court?
The Judge sitting in Court represents the authority of the State to determine a dispute.
The origin of which date back to the early Norman Kings in England (who had the “divine right of Kings” i.e. said to be appointed by God) and allowed subjects to come before the King to determine disputes. This had a stabilising influence on society by establishing a “rule of law”. I said earlier there are two ways to determine a dispute in a “civilised” society i.e. an agreement or an order from the Court. Without the Court there would be agreements …or whoever was able to use force to get what they want.
Thus, the Courts are imperative to maintaining a civilised society and it is very important the authority of the Court is respected.
Respect for the Court today means that while you’re in Court:
- Bow to the Judge if the Judge is sitting at the bench when you enter or leave the Court room.
- Do not wear any hat or have sunglasses on your head. Dress appropriately. You don’t have to wear a suit or tie if you’re not a lawyer but dressing appropriately communicates to the Court you respect the process you’re involved in.
- If you are speaking to the Judge the proper address is “your Honour”.
- Do not speak to the person next to you in the gallery unless it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes lawyers will whisper to each other with last minute negotiations before their matter is called but this ought to be avoided. The Judge is focused on the matter before them and typically they don’t appreciate being distracted.
- Often when you are in Court and supporting a friend, or if it is your matter, you will hear something you don’t like or don’t agree with. In this situation keep your poker face. Don’t smile, roll your eyes, stare at someone, shake your head etc. Don’t be argumentative or rude – especially with the Judge.
- If you’re self-represented or addressed by the Judge directly focus on listening and not on speaking. It is natural that you’ll want to tell the Judge all of your concerns however this is rarely appropriate unless you’re making submissions at a trial or interim hearing. More often than not this goes badly for the person speaking. The Judge might want specific information so to give that information and don’t try to qualify it or give context. There will be time for that later. The same applies if you’re being cross examined. It’s an exercise in listening and not speaking. Cross examination is where the other party is scoring their points. Your points are in your affidavit so just answer the questions as honestly and succinctly as possible, and if you don’t understand ask the question be repeated and/or say if you don’t understand.
There are fewer physical appearances while Covid 19 is upon us but the same rules apply if you’re appearing by video or phone.
Going to Court is stressful, especially if you find yourself in a trial. It is also expensive and time consuming and it is much preferred that a negotiated settlement can be reached. Before deciding to go to Court you should have a good reason why. You should know what the impediment to settlement is, what will the costs be financially and emotionally, and you need to have confidence in your Family Lawyer providing the advice you are relying on to make these decisions.
Family law advice
If you have any queries in relation to separation, divorce, de facto relationships, property settlement or child support payments, my firm Hooper Mill Family Lawyers can assist you with practical advice.
We are family lawyers servicing all areas in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast.