NB. This post is in respect of an application under s. 8 Children Act 1989 and applies to general applications where a party is seeking a live with/spend time with order or a Prohibited Steps or Specific Issue order where there are no particular complicating factors.
In family law, a First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) is the first court hearing once an application has been made to court. The FHDRA has two main functions; To see if agreement can be reached and a Child Arrangements Order made by agreement or, if this is not possible, to make directions for the gathering of evidence to progress the case towards a Dispute Resolution Appointment and/or final hearing.
Assuming the application has been made on notice (i.e. the application has been served on the other side) then both parties and the court will already have the C100 (application form), possibly a C1A (list of allegations/specific concerns) and a safeguarding letter which will have been prepared by CAFCASS (The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) in advance of the hearing.
An officer of CAFCASS will be present at the FHDRA and will request that both parties meet with them (usually separately) to provide further information so that they may update the court as to the parties’ positions and their own recommendations. They may also encourage agreement to be reached if they consider that this is in the child’s/children’s best interests and there are no safeguarding concerns.
If agreement can be reached then the legal representatives, or the court if neither party is represented, will help the parties in drawing up an agreement or a final order and there will be no further hearings.
If agreement cannot be reached then the following directions may be made:
- Parties to file witness statements setting out their case.
- CAFCASS (or the Local Authority if applicable) to file a s. 7 report making recommendations in respect of the application.
- One or both parties to file a letter from their GP (if there are concerns in respect of physical/mental ill-health which may affect the outcome of the application).
- A letter to be obtained from the school (to ascertain whether the child’s behaviour/education is affected by one/both parents’ care).
- Hair strand testing (if there are allegations in respect of alcohol and/or drug misuse).
- List for Dispute Resolution Appointment/Final Hearing.
- Both parties to attend the Separated Parents’ Information Programme (SPIP).
There are a number of other directions which may be made but these are the most common, in the author’s experience.
The court is also under a duty to consider, at the earliest opportunity, whether a fact finding hearing will be necessary. Such a hearing will be required where one party makes allegations against the other, which will have a material impact upon the order being sought, and where these allegations are denied.
If the court considers that a fact finding hearing is necessary then they will direct that the person making the allegation(s) files a witness statement and schedule of allegations, along with other evidence in support of the allegation(s), after which the respondent will file a statement in response. The court may also order police disclosure if the police have been involved at any time. The court may list for the next hearing to be a fact finding hearing or direct a further hearing to consider this evidence before deciding on whether to list a fact finding hearing and, if so, when and how long that hearing should take.
The court is under a duty to consider cases justly and proportionately.
The court is also encouraged to consider, at every hearing, whether Alternative Dispute Resolution (i.e. mediation, arbitration, solution focused therapy etc) would be more appropriate than proceeding with the application via the courts.
If you require assistance with any aspect of your case, please follow our simple step-by-step guide then contact our clerks who will put you in touch with the family lawyer best able to help you.