What will happen at a First Appointment hearing?
When a financial application is made as part of your divorce, three court hearings are scheduled to take place: a First Appointment, a Financial Dispute Resolution (“FDR hearing”) and a Final Hearing. This guide explains a little more about what will happen at the First Appointment hearing.
What is the First Appointment hearing?
Parties often regard the First Appointment as relatively unimportant, because they don’t have to say anything and much of what goes on goes over their heads. In reality the First Appointment hearing is very important and is designed as a “housekeeping” hearing to define issues and save costs. This is achieved by us advising you as to strategy, tactics and identifying the key legal issues in your case in an objective way. We will make sure all the relevant information, documents and valuations are disclosed so you and your spouse can proceed to the next stage, the FDR hearing or the “settlement” hearing.
Before the First Appointment hearing, which normally lasts 30 to 45 minutes, you and your spouse will have exchanged a financial statement, a document commonly referred to as a Form E. We can prepare this document on your behalf to ensure it is presented in the most effective way for your case. At the First Appointment hearing, discussions will take place with the Judge as to what, if any, additional information is required before the case is ready to proceed to the FDR hearing. It is vital to play your part and make sure everything that should be disclosed, has been disclosed. You also need to confirm that all the valuations that need to be produced and agreed are set in motion, ready for the Financial Dispute Resolution hearing. We will provide you with specific advice of what documents and information you need to disclose so that you fully comply with your duty of disclosure.
The purpose of the FDR hearing is for discussions and negotiations where the presiding Judge will attempt to bring about a settlement. More details about the FDR hearing can be found in our guide: What will happen at a Financial Dispute Resolution hearing (FDR hearing).
Do I have to attend the First Appointment hearing?
Yes. You must attend at all court hearings concerning financial matters. You can be excused attendance if you are abroad or there are other exceptional reasons, but leave of the court is required in advance. Please tell us if you think you may be in difficulties in attending, with reasons.
Do I need to prepare for the First Appointment hearing?
Yes. Before the First Appointment hearing, you and your spouse through your lawyers will have to prepare First Appointment documents consisting of a Chronology, Questionnaire and Statement of Issues. Details of each document and their purpose are set out below.
A Chronology is a brief history of what is regarded as the relevant facts, key events and key dates in the case. These include the date of the marriage, the birth dates of any children, the date of separation and other relevant dates and events. Sometimes these dates and events will be contentious, but don’t worry too much, as they are intended to assist the court.
A draft Questionnaire will also be prepared, intended for your spouse to answer. This Questionnaire is based upon your spouse’s Form E and is designed to find out more about their financial affairs that they may have forgotten to deal with in their Form E or to obtain missing information, and to narrow down the issues between you. Any questions raised in a Questionnaire must be proportionate to the assets and issues involved in the case and must be relevant. We believe it is very important to ask the right questions at an early stage to define the issue and save costs. With our skill, experience and problem solving creativity, we will advise you on the most appropriate questions to get results. Sometimes it may be necessary to involve third parties such as Forensic Accountants, Financial Advisers, or Actuaries who assist in the preparation of clients’ Questionnaires and who help to assess the information subsequently provided. It is important to remember we are solicitors, so having this expert advice is frequently necessary and invaluable.
In straightforward cases, the Questionnaire may be surplus to requirements and may not be contentious. In complicated cases, it most certainly is not. It is for the Judge to decide at the First Appointment hearings which questions are necessary and which should be answered, and which are not. Once the Judge has decided which questions should be answered, you and your spouse are normally given 14 to 28 days after the First Appointment hearing to answer the Questionnaires.
The Statement of Issues
In addition to the above documents it will also be necessary to file a Statement of Issues. In the Statement of Issues document you and your spouse through your solicitors will as succinctly as possible identify what the issues are in the case and what still needs to be answered by means of the Questionnaire, before the case can proceed to a FDR hearing.
What will the Judge do at the First Appointment hearing?
At a First Appointment hearing the Judge will rarely hear evidence from you or your spouse, make a final decision or be interested in hearing about ‘bad’ behaviour if it is not relevant to the case. The purpose of the hearing is to make sure all the relevant information, documents and valuations are disclosed so the parties can proceed to the settlement stage. In many cases it is frequently found that valuations are contentious. This may be because your spouse may have placed a ridiculous value upon a major asset or because each of you has obtained different valuations that you cannot agree upon. If this is the case a Judge can order further valuations or that a single joint expert carries out a joint valuation which you will both be bound by.
Other directions can also be ordered at the hearing such as the appointment of third party experts, for example an Actuary and/or Financial Advisers to provide advice on pensions and/or financial matters.
For some the First Appointment hearing may feel an anti-climax. It is important to remember that the hearing is not meant to be a mud-slinging exercise, nor is it designed to resolve the case on the day. It is designed to collect any missing information and/or documents and to narrow the issues with a view to hopefully reaching a settlement by the next hearing, the FDR hearing.
Finally, tips for attending at Court
What to wear – There are no hard and fast rules about what to wear in court. However, the court is a formal place and you should dress accordingly.
Arriving at court – You should arrive at least 30 minutes before a First Appointment hearing, and one hour before a FDR hearing to meet with your legal representative, usually a Barrister. You can bring a family member or friend (who is over the age of 18) to sit with you and provide support. Unless approved by the Judge, your support person cannot sit with you in the Courtroom nor can they speak on your behalf. The only people that are allowed in the Courtroom are you and your spouse and legal representatives.
Inside the courtroom – In family law cases the courtroom is usually a room with a large table where the Judge sits at one end and the parties and their legal representatives sit at either side of the table. In general the atmosphere is far less formal than most people expect and your legal representative will do most of the speaking for you.
At a First Appointment hearing you will be rarely asked a question directly by the Judge, but if you are, you should refer to the Judge as “Sir” in the case of a male Judge, and “Ma’am” (to rhyme with Pam) in the case of a female Judge. Speak clearly to the Judge and do not:
- address comments to other people in the courtroom, such as your spouse or their legal representative
- point or use abusive language
- raise your voice or shout
When the First Appointment is over, and you leave court with directions in place, the Judge will also have ordered a new hearing date for the FDR hearing, and the case moves on. All directions given by the court must be complied with by the dates provided by the Judge, so that the FDR hearing can go ahead.
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