What cases do family magistrates hear?
Magistrates’ courts, also known as tier one of the family court, hear two types of family cases: public and private.
In private law cases, magistrates determine what is in the best interests of the child when parents are separating and cannot agree on arrangements.
In public law cases, magistrates determine what is in the best interests of a child where there is a risk of harm and social services are involved with a family to protect children.
Magistrates do not hear cases about financial settlements when partners or parents separate.
Magistrates also do not hear cases about child maintenance. These cases are dealt with by the Child Maintenance Service.
Other cases about families are heard by the higher tiers of the family court including district judges, circuit judges and the High Court (Family Division).
What training do family court magistrates have?
Family magistrates can either be recruited directly to the family court or they can sit in both the adult criminal and family courts.
All family court magistrates receive the same training regardless of how they are recruited. This training includes:
- how to navigate the welfare checklists and determine the best interests of the child
- the different procedures in the family court and different layouts of courtrooms
- ways of communicating with people in court particularly where there is high conflict
- the powers of the court in private law cases such as child arrangements orders, prohibited steps orders, and domestic violence protection orders
- the powers of the court in public law cases such as supervision orders, care orders and emergency protection orders.
How is the family court different from criminal courts?
The aim of magistrates hearing cases is to determine what is in the best interests of the child. Family magistrates are not concerned with establishing guilt or assigning blame.
The family court is usually less formal: there are no wigs or robes, people involved sit rather than stand, magistrates speak directly to parents, and often people are not represented by a lawyer.
Family proceedings are private. Though members of the press or legal bloggers may attend some hearings, there is no public right to see family cases. Reporting restrictions and confidentiality requirements are in place to protect children.
Organisations like Cafcass and local authorities may be involved in cases by preparing reports that are provided as evidence to help magistrates to make decisions for children.
When facts need to be established, the family court uses the ‘balance of probabilities’ (civil standard of proof). Facts do not have to be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
How are family court magistrates appointed?
Anyone can apply directly to be a family court magistrate. A magistrate who already sits in the adult criminal court can apply to be a family court magistrate by contacting their family panel chair.
If a candidate for the family court is assessed to have the right attributes, they can be appointed to the family panel (group of family magistrates) in their local justice area. There are 75 local justice areas in England and Wales, each led by a bench chair.
What does the MA want to change?
The MA has a family court committee that advises on relevant policy and research. Members of the committee are sitting family court magistrates who are interested in improving the family court. Their current priorities are:
- Ensuring adequate and appropriate allocation of public law cases to magistrates.
- Transparency in family courts while maintaining the safety of children.
- Reducing conflict type language in the family court and encouraging mediation.
If you have questions about the work of the family court committee, please contact our policy and research officer.
Information for families
If you are experiencing family separation or other family law problems, the government can provide information about mediation, legal aid and the family court.
Although the MA cannot provide support directly, our list of useful resources will signpost you to other organisations that can help if you are attending family court.