Before you issue proceedings for a court order in respect of your children, pause and consider: have you tried everything else?

We are sure that you will have tried to reason with the other parent, and probably tried arguing too, to no avail. You will also need to have tried mediation and attended a MIAM to obtain a signed form required for your application. Perhaps you instructed solicitors to try negotiating on your behalf. If all that has failed to resolve child-related issues, you may reach the decision that court proceedings are the only option left.

At this stage you don't need to provide a full statement - just a brief summary of the background, what you're asking for and your reasons for making the application. The court will charge a fee to issue the application but it may be reduced or waived altogether if you are on a low income.

A copy of your application will be sent to CAFCASS and another to the Respondent.

CAFCASS are officers of the Court and will be provided with a copy of your application. You will be contacted by one of their officers before the first hearing. They will want to speak to both you and the other party about the issues to be resolved. They'll want to know what your concerns are, how the other parents concerns can be alleviated and what problems there may have been in the past. In some courts, this discussion takes place at the court 30 minutes before the first hearing.

CAFCASS will also undertake safeguarding checks in respect of you and the other parent. They will contact the police to find out whether either of you have any relevant convictions. They'll also speak to the local Children's Services to find out whether the children are known to them, if so, why and what support they provided, if any.

All this information will be summarised in a short letter to the Court. Both you and the other parent will receive a copy before the hearing, although sometimes not until you arrive at court. The purpose is to give the court an idea what they are dealing with when you're all in court.

Both of you will be required to attend the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment. This will be at least four weeks after the application is issued in order to give CAFCASS time to prepare. You should not bring the children to court.

If you or the other parent (or both of you) have instructed solicitors to represent you, a lot of discussion and negotiation will take place before the hearing while you are in the waiting rooms! It may be that an agreement - perhaps just a temporary one - can be reached and suggested to the court. If neither of you have solicitors, this discussion is likely to be managed by the legal adviser in the courtroom.

In the Family Proceedings Court, the first hearing is likely to be dealt with by a Legal Adviser in a small office room. It is possible that you will be in a courtroom with magistrates, but that is more likely on subsequent hearings, rather than for the first appointment. In the County Court, a District Judge will deal with the hearing. In either court, a duty officer from CAFCASS will also be present and will be aware of the discussions that you have already had. Their role will be to ensure that any directions are in the children's bests interests.

The hearing will be to consider what directions are needed. This means thinking about what further information is needed or what steps need to be taken before a final decision can be made. This might include dealing with any allegations raised by one parent against the other. For example, if you have alleged that the other parents uses drugs, a test may be directed, as well as who will pay the cost and when the results must be received. Another possible direction is that CAFCASS will prepare a report for the court providing more detail about the dispute and making recommendations about how it can be resolved. This may involve speaking to the children and discovering their wishes and feelings.

A date for a further hearing will also be arranged. You should not expect the proceedings to end at the first hearing. The Family Proceedings Court isn't able to make any decision about what arrangements should be made as not all relevant information will have been received. If you are heard by a Legal Adviser, they do not have the authority to make an order without magistrates being present. However, any arrangements that are agreed can be recorded by the court and tested over the next few weeks before the next hearing. It might not be an order but the Court will expect any such agreement to be taken just as seriously by you both.

It is likely that several directions hearings will take place before reaching the conclusion that an agreement cannot be reached. At that point, a final hearing will be arranged so that a decision can be made for you by the magistrates (in the Family Proceedings Court) or the District Judge (in the County Court).

During the final hearing, the court will hear evidence from you and the other parent. There will be an opportunity to cross-examine each other. The court will also hear from any experts that have been involved in the case previously. This may include a Cafcass officer if they have written a report. However, they will only be asked to give evidence if there are aspects of the report that either of you want to challenge.

After hearing from everyone involved, the judge or magistrates will make a final order.

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