Children cases taking longer than at any time since current records began
Child law

Children cases taking longer than at any time since current records began

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James Harbottle
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Children cases taking longer than at any time since current records began

Paul Sykes – Leading Child Law Solicitor

The Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) has published its latest quarterly figures on the volume of cases dealt with by the Family Court, for July to September this year.

There are a number of interesting things contained in the statistics, but perhaps one matter stands out as being of particular concern.

We will come to that in a moment, but first, what else do the figures tell us?


Fewer new cases

One of the headline points taken from the figures was that there was a decrease in the number of cases started in the Family Courts in the quarter.

We are told that 63,084 new cases were started in family courts, which is down 11% on the equivalent quarter in 2020. This, say the MoJ, was due to decreases in all case types: matrimonial (i.e. divorce – 15%), public law children cases involving social services (14%), adoption cases (12%), private law children cases not involving social services (10%), domestic violence cases (8%) and financial remedy cases (5%).

As to why these decreases were seen, a statistician’s comment within the statistical bulletin states that: “Volumes of new cases starting across all Family Justice areas have decreased this quarter, possibly stabilising following the recovery from the impact of Covid-19 in the end of 2020 and early 2021.”

Whatever, the decreases are obviously welcome, and if they are part of a longer term trend, as the MoJ suggests, then hopefully the workload pressure that we have seen in the Family Courts over recent years will at last ease.


More cases disposed ofChildren cases taking longer than at any time since current records began

The statistics for the number of cases disposed of by the Family Courts are also encouraging.

The MoJ tell us that: “There were 61,249 case disposals in July to September 2021, up 9% on the equivalent quarter of 2020. This was due to increases in financial remedy (19%), matrimonial (16%) and domestic violence (5%) cases. However, there was a decrease in adoption (7%), public law (7%) and private law (2%) case disposals.”

And as to the reason for the increases, the MoJ explain that the courts were “working through backlogs as Covid-19 restrictions have eased.”


Care proceedings taking longer

But it is not all good news.

In the realm of public law cases involving social services, the average time for a care and supervision case to reach first disposal was 45 weeks in July to September 2021, which was up 4 weeks from the same quarter in 2020, and the highest average since 2012.

In 2014 parliament determined that care proceedings should normally be completed within 26 weeks. However, in this quarter only 24% of these care proceedings were disposed of within that 26-week time limit, which is down 5 percentage points from the same period last year.


Private children cases taking much longer Children cases taking longer than at any time since current records began

And finally to that statistic of particular concern. It relates to private law children cases, i.e. disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, where social services are not involved.

The MoJ tells us that between July and September 2021 it took on average 42 weeks for private law cases to reach a final order, i.e. case closure. This is up 9 weeks from the same period in 2020, reaching record levels since the MoJ began publishing these quarterly statistics in 2014. This, say the MoJ, “continues the upward trend seen since the middle of 2016, where the number of new cases overtook the number of disposals”.

No other reason is suggested by the MoJ for this highly concerning increase in the time that it takes for private law children cases to be dealt with by the court, but clearly along with court workloads lack of resources is likely to be a factor.

Whatever, it is simply not acceptable that cases are taking so long. The detrimental effect of this upon the parents, and more importantly upon the children involved, can only be imagined.

There is, however, something that parents can do to avoid these delays, and that is to avoid court in the first place by sorting out their issues by agreement, if necessary with the assistance of mediation.