The application is submitted to court on ‘form A’ with the fee, which is currently £255. On receipt of the application, the court will issue a timetable on ‘form C’; setting out the preliminary steps to be taken. The process is the same in every case regardless of the nature and extent of issues and irrespective of the value of your assets.
The main stages are:
- Exchange of financial statements on ‘form E’ with supporting financial documents. This is a very lengthy and detailed form to facilitate full and frank disclosure.
- Exchange of questionnaires, chronologies and statements of issues. Your solicitor will go through your spouse’s ‘form E’ with you. If it’s considered that there are any deficiencies in the information provided, then a questionnaire for further information and documents can be raised. The judge will consider draft questionnaires at the first appointment and will ask which questions need to be answered to ensure that the issues stay relevant and proportionate on costs.
- The first directions appointment (FDA). This is the first court hearing which is generally just a procedural stage. The judge will look at replies to questionnaires and consider whether any external evidence is needed. For example, if you and your husband/wife cannot agree the current market value of a property, the judge can require a valuation report from a chartered surveyor. If there’s a family business, an accountant’s report may be needed which includes valuation of that business. If there are valuable pension funds where pension sharing or off-setting is being considered, a pension actuary may need to be instructed to produce a report. Where expert evidence is needed, a single expert, who will give impartial evidence in court, is usually instructed, and paid for, jointly.
- Replies to questionnaires are exchanged and expert reports received. Offers and counter offers are made in an attempt to reach agreement to facilitate the making of a consent order at the next hearing.
The financial dispute resolution (FDR) hearing. The purpose of the FDR is to encourage settlement without the need of a final contested hearing. Confidential ‘without prejudice’ negotiations take place in front of the judge. The judge will have seen all of the papers, including all offers and counter offers exchanged. The hearing will last for approximately one hour. Parties will need to attend court an hour beforehand to facilitate discussions and negotiations. They don’t need to give evidence at this hearing. The judge will listen to legal submissions from both parties’ legal representatives. The judge will then give guidance on any matters of dispute and will assist the parties by giving an indication as to the likely order he would make if he were determining the case. Further negotiations will then take place outside of the courtroom and many cases do settle at the FDR hearing. However, if agreement can’t be reached, the next stage will be a trial. The judge who deals with the FDR will not be able to conduct the final hearing as he or she will know the without prejudice positions and will have given a view without having heard any oral evidence.
The final hearing
The final hearing. Both parties will most likely have a barrister to represent them at final hearing, which involves preparation of a trial bundle submitted to court in advance and preparation of legal skeleton arguments. Both parties will be required to give evidence under oath and face questions from the other party’s legal representative. The final decision will be made by the judge with supporting reasons given. A final hearing usually lasts at least one full day of court time but may last for several days in more complex cases.