The courts

The legal system in England and Wales is divided into civil and criminal law. The Family Courts are part of the country’s civil law system and operate under the civil burden of truth, the balance of probabilities. This means that it is for the judge or magistrates to decide what is more likely to have happened rather than requiring proof beyond all reasonable doubt, as is required in a criminal court.

The civil courts deal with disputes between private citizens. Most of these cases are heard in county court and the majority will be heard in small rooms within the court building. They may be heard in court rooms. Some cases may also be heard in a Magistrates court.

Civil and criminal cases may be heard in the same building. However, the proceedings will be different. If you are involved in criminal court proceedings or have been, this information may not have been shared with the Family Court (civil). Let the Family Court know of any ongoing criminal proceedings or convictions related to the domestic abuse at the earliest opportunity, as they may not be aware, and this may be important.

Family Court

Family Law is a type of civil law which is divided into two distinct areas, Private and Public. Private cases usually come before the courts because the people involved (parties) need help sorting out a disagreement or resolving an issue. The Civil and Family Court can also make orders that can help to protect victims of domestic abuse. You can find out more about protective orders here. Public law usually involves care proceedings, where the state, or local authority is seeking to safeguard a child by becoming involved in the arrangements for their care.

The Family Courts often work to decide on cases between parents relating to arrangements for their children, such as: who the children should live with, who they should see, where they should go to school or even if they can move to live abroad with one of their parents. The cases can also involve grandparents and other relatives.

Usually, the court will require people to show that they have attempted to resolve their disagreement before coming before the court. This is because court proceedings can be very difficult and can cost a lot of money. Mediation is often suggested, and it can help some people. However, if there is domestic abuse, an abusive person may attempt to control the mediation process. Therefore, people impacted by domestic are not required to attend mediation or mediation information assessment meetings (MIAM). They will need a supporting letter to show why mediation isn’t an option. Find out more about mediation here.

Cases heard in the Family Court are heard by either Magistrates (lay people who volunteer and are supported by a legal advisor), DFJ’s, (Designated Family Judge) and circuit Judges.

Criminal Courts

Breaking the law in this country may result in criminal proceedings. This can involve the person accused of committing a crime being arrested by the Police, investigated, and charged. The Police then pass information to the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) who decide whether the case should go to court. The standard of evidence required for criminal proceeding is higher than in civil courts. In criminal courts the Magistrates, Jury or Judge need to decide that the evidence proves ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ that the criminal offence was committed. This process can take years.

95% of criminal cases are heard and resolved in Magistrates Court. Magistrates are lay people, meaning that they are not trained in law. Magistrate cases are usually heard before a panel of three magistrates supported by a legal advisor to provide information on points of law. There is no jury in magistrate’s court.

Crown court has a jury and a judge and hears more serious cases such as manslaughter, rape, and armed robbery.