Appearing at the Family Court can be daunting. Even for the most seasoned legal practitioners. This doesn’t mean you can’t prepare yourself. Here is some of what you can expect.
*Given the current situation with coronavirus, some of these measures may have changed. Please visit the Family Court of WA for the most up-to-date directions or read our blog entries on the impacts of coronavirus on family court matters.
Before the family court hearing
Parking. There are plenty of paid parking options nearby the Family Court of Western Australia. It is difficult to estimate how long your attendance at Court may take and therefore, we always recommend allowing at least 2 hours of paid parking so that you don’t get caught short. Even better, arrange for a support person or a taxi to drop you to the Court. That way you won’t have the added stress during the hearing of whether your parking is about to run out!
Be early. Plan to arrive at Court no less than 30 minutes prior to the commencement of your hearing. This allows time for any unforeseen traffic, finding parking on a busy day, security screening queues at the Court’s entrance and most importantly – to sit and gather your thoughts. The Court doesn’t wait for late litigants.
Find your courtroom. It is common to liaise with your lawyer prior to any hearing to make specific arrangements about when and where to meet. In any event, you can check the Family Court of Western Australia website as early as 4.00pm on the previous day to find out which courtroom your matter will be heard in.
Check in. Once you arrive on the correct floor of the building, you or your lawyer will need to check in with Court Officer at the registration desk.
Waiting to be called. This time is useful to confirm instructions or ask your lawyer any questions you may have about the hearing – both in terms of process and which issues are likely to be addressed. If necessary, you should provide your lawyer with any updates on relevant matters that have transpired since you last spoke. Your lawyer may speak with the other party or if represented, the other party’s lawyer, to see what can be agreed prior to going in front of the Judicial Officer. If you feel that you need seclusion, articulate this to your lawyer so that a private conference room can be used whilst waiting to be called.
Don’t engage with rage. The Family Court is a busy place and there are usually many litigants waiting outside their courtroom too – including the parties on the other side of your matter. It is not appropriate to engage in any kind of intimidation, confrontation or conflict with your former spouse or anyone else inside the building. Security and Court Officers have a zero tolerance policy for violence or abuse and perpetrators of this conduct will be escorted from the building swiftly.
During the family court hearing
Recording now. Once you enter the courtroom, anything that is said may be recorded (even if the Court is not actually in session). Be mindful of what you say and how you say it – regardless of whom you say it to. What you think may be a private conversation can end up on the courtroom recording.
Seating. Follow your lawyer’s instructions on where to sit, as different courtrooms have varying space and seating arrangements. It may be that you have to wait in the gallery (the public seating area) for another matter to finish before your matter is called on – meaning you have to change seats. As a general rule, you will sit next to your lawyer at the bar table during child related proceedings and behind your lawyer for all other hearings.
Etiquette. You must bow to the Judicial Officer when they enter and leave the courtroom. Likewise, if you enter a courtroom when a hearing is already in session, or leave before the session is concluded, you must bow at the door of the courtroom upon your respective entry or exit. You should not speak when a Judicial Officer is speaking and abide by all directives of the Court Officer.
Speaking. Your lawyer will speak throughout the hearing and make submissions on your behalf. You may be specifically asked to answer a question by the Judicial Officer, in which case you should answer frankly. Depending on the Judicial Officer presiding over your matter, you may address a Registrar as “Registrar” or “Sir”/”Madam” and a Magistrate or Judge as “Your Honour”. Your direct interaction with the Judicial Officer will depend upon the type of hearing.
Giving instructions. If you feel you need to give your lawyer additional information or confirm your instructions during the hearing, you should do so discretely. It is appropriate to pass your lawyer a note or if the discussion is likely to be significant, quietly ask your lawyer to request a short adjournment. Litigants often think something important has been missed, only to have their lawyer raise the issue later in the hearing without prompting. It is usually a good idea to write down all additional issues that come to mind during the hearing and tick them off as they are addressed, so that you can raise them with your lawyer right at the end of their appearance. This ensures your lawyer is not unnecessarily distracted during the hearing.
Body language. Judicial Officers are able to see every facial expression, gesture and muttering from the bench. It is important that you keep a calm and measured demeanour during any hearing, regardless of how you feel about the submissions or orders being made. No fist pumping or high fiving!
After the family court hearing
Clarify. If you are not sure what happened during the hearing, it is important that you ask your lawyer questions and clarify the outcome. You will usually have an opportunity to debrief with your lawyer in detail at a later date, but it is useful to do so to some extent while the events of the hearing are still fresh in your mind.
Court orders. The Court usually releases typed copies of Court orders a week or two after a hearing. Although your lawyer should have a record of important filing deadlines and dates pursuant to the Court orders, it is important that you also make note of these so that you can comply with orders taking effect before the Court orders are published.