By Gianna Huesch
Going to family court is fun!” …said no one ever. Let’s face it, many of those who go to court feel they have no choice to do so because they are either being faced with a real injustice or are being bullied to go there by narcissistic or abusive exes – who can take some kind of deluded pleasure in forcing their former partner into court.
Alliance Legal does everything we can to resolve matters without going to Court. We carefully consider the cases we take on, and in particular we try very hard to avoid running cases in which potential clients attempt to use the legal system to get square with their exes.
Appearing in court is typically a nerve-wracking and stressful experience. Apart from the formal setting,and the obligation to reveal highly personal information to strangers including judges, lawyers and court-appointed experts, it’s the simple fact that the outcomes are so important, even life changing, that can cause people to feel dread and anxiety.
While you may prefer to avoid going to a family court, if proceedings have been issued by your Ex, they can’t be ignored. Even if you are negotiating with your Ex to try to resolve matters without a hearing, sometimes you need to prepare for court in parallel in the meantime, just in case negotiations are not successful.
To reduce stress, it helps to know what to expect from the court process, and while it’s possible to get a lot of good information from the Family Court websites and court publications, here are some additional tips for preparing for court.
Get some help
Obviously we would recommend starting by having an excellent solicitor, even though you can naturally choose to be self-represented in court. It’s also possible to hire a solicitor to act as a shadow solicitor to help with preparing for court but who will not actually represent you in court, and you also might look into unbundling legal services.
Having an experienced lawyer work with you will ensure you are aware of all your rights and responsibilities and can plan the most effective strategy for the best possible outcome for you.
Understand the purpose and procedure
Make sure you know exactly what a particular hearing is for, and what will and won’t be discussed. You will have received advice from your solicitor about the process and what happens at various stages, but it’s a good idea to review this just before your hearing and make sure your solicitor answers any questions you have and debunks any jargon for you. Some hearings are strictly procedural without the opportunity to put facts before a Judge, other hearings involve lawyers handing up written submissions and arguing over facts, and generally only final hearings involve witnesses being cross-examined like on TV.
Familiarise yourself with your material
If you have had to provide evidence in the proceedings (eg in an affidavit), read back through it to refresh your memory of what you have said and which documents you have provided. Check that nothing is missing, and that you have provided any additional documents you have been asked to provide. If there is any information which has changed or needs updating, discuss with your solicitor so they can decide whether it needs to be shared with the other party and the court. As well as bringing all your documents, you may find it helpful to bring a notepad and pen.
Make arrangements for childcare
You will need to make other arrangements for your children’s care for when you come to court. If your child does need to attend court (to speak to a family consultant or judicial officer), check with court staff prior to your day to see whether any childcare arrangements need to be made. Usually, courts have no babysitting facilities, so you may need to rope in a friend or grandma/grandpa to help mind children when you are in a room with a court consultant on your own.
Take a friend
Taking a friend or family member who is over 18 to court with you can help reduce anxiety (though taking a new partner is not a good idea). Third parties can often be more objective in digesting information and be a helpful sounding board. Just having them there can be immeasurably supportive, and they are welcome to sit with you in the back of the court room.
While there is no formal dress code for attending court, most people dress in a way which suits the formal nature of the environment. Sunnies, hats, thongs and strappy tops are usually not worn. If your job involves a uniform, or high viz clothing and you are coming and going from work, it is perfectly acceptable to come in work clothes. Dressing neatly is always best, and you will also want to be comfortable. You will not be expected to go out and buy a new suit. Ask your solicitor for further guidance if necessary.
Know where to go and when
Knowing exactly where you need to go can help alleviate anxiety. When preparing for court, be clear not only on what time the hearing starts, but what time you need to arrive, and exactly where you need to go. See the ‘find a court location’ map on the homepage of the courts’ websites (www.familycourt.gov.au and www.federalcircuitcourt.gov.au) to confirm the location of your family law registry. Use Google Earth or Street View for a visual guide to the building. Check you are not confusing a Childrens Court or Magistrates Court with a family court. Sometimes they are nearby as part of a court complex.
Don’t be late
You should arrive to court at least half an hour before your scheduled start—you don’t want to be late or even miss your case being called, and there is nothing worse than rushing in, flustered, at the very last minute. Arriving in plenty of time means you’ll also have a chance to organise car parking, get some water, gather your thoughts, go over notes and have a final discussion with your solicitor before your hearing. Arrange to meet your solicitor at a pre-agreed place and ensure you and your solicitor have the correct contact telephone numbers for each other. If you can visit the court in advance, try to do so, as you can use that opportunity to find nearby parking, ensure you know where the court is located, make you more comfortable and help you know what to expect.
Make sure you’ve eaten and had your coffee or tea before you enter the courtroom, as there are no food and drinks allowed in the courtroom. Ideally you’ve had a good breakfast so you are well nourished for the day ahead, as court is often quite a draining experience. Also make sure you have visited the bathroom. If medical issues mean you may need additional food or toilet breaks, discuss this with your lawyer or the court staff in advance of your hearing day.
Turn off electronic devices and phones, remove hats or sunglasses (unless for medical or religious reasons) and do not bring food or drink. Recording devices and cameras are also not permitted as a rule (this includes smart phones).
Stand each time the court commences or adjourns (court officers will announce this by saying “all rise” or “please stand, the court is now in session” or words to that effect). Look at what the others are doing. Stand up also whenever you are talking to the judge or the judge is talking to you.
In the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court, the judicial officer hearing your case will either be a judge, or registrar. The court officer or associate can tell you who is hearing your case. Divorces are usually dealt with by a Registrar. You should address a judge as ‘Your Honour’ and a registrar as ‘Registrar’.
Speak clearly and politely to the judicial officer. Do not address comments to other people in the courtroom, point or use abusive language, or raise your voice or shout, no matter how upset you may be. Try to avoid getting into a staring competition with your Ex. Rolling your eyes, huffing and puffing under your breath, or interrupting the Judge is not a good idea.
When your hearing is completed, as you leave the courtroom pause at the door briefly and turn and bow to the judicial officer (ie the Judge or Registrar) You should also follow this procedure whenever you enter or leave the courtroom while the court is in session.
You may have concerns about your safety while attending court. If so, make sure you call the family courts on 1300 352 000 before your hearing, so that you can discuss implementing safety arrangements for while you are at court. See here for more details. The courts are familiar with domestic violence, and will organise a safety plan where needed, ensuring the Security team look after you. Make sure you tell court staff immediately if you do not feel safe at court
You can read more about preparing for court, especially if you do not have a lawyer, here.
You can read the Family Courts’ information sheet on preparing for court here.
See also our blog: What to expect on your first court date.
Do you have a family law matter that looks like it will need to go to court to be resolved? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400 for advice.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.