More, longer, cases: Is the court system broken?

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James Harbottle
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More, longer, cases: Is the court system broken?

Ian Walker - Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ M
Ian Walker – Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ Managing Director

Last week the Ministry of Justice published its latest quarterly statistics for the work of the Family Court, for the period April to June 2021. They do not make happy reading.

The family court system has been under increasing pressure for years, suffering from rising caseloads, closing courts and lack of resources, amongst other problems. Until now it has always stuttered along, making the best of a difficult job. But has the tipping point now been reached?

Unhappy reading

The statistics show that 66,357 new cases started in family courts in April to June 2021. This is up 14% on the same quarter in 2020. The Ministry say that this was due to increases in most case types: financial remedy (76%), private law children (11%), adoption (11%) and divorce (7%) cases.

But cases are also taking longer to be dealt with by the courts.

The average time for divorce cases to be dealt with has gone up, compared to the equivalent quarter in 2020. For those granted decree nisi in April to June 2021, the mean average time from the date of the divorce petition was 25 weeks, up 2 weeks from the same period in 2020. The mean average time from petition to decree absolute was 50 weeks, up 4 weeks from the equivalent quarter in 2020.

And there were bigger increases in the time taken for the court to deal with private disputes between parents over arrangements for their children. Between April and June 2021 it took on average 41 weeks for private law cases to reach a final order, i.e. case closure. This was up 13 weeks from the same period in 2020, continuing an upward trend seen since the middle of 2016, when the number of new cases overtook the number of cases disposed of by the courts.

And in respect of public law children cases (i.e. cases involving social services) things were just as bad. These cases are supposed to take a maximum of 26 weeks. However, in April to June they were taking an average of 44 weeks, up 8 weeks from the same quarter in 2020, and the highest average since 2012. Only 22% of cases were dealt with within the 26 week time limit.

A broken system?court

All of this may make seriously unhappy reading, especially for those unfortunate enough to be involved in a family court dispute, but does it mean that the court system is broken?

The figures are certainly indicative of a crisis. After all, the old saying that justice delayed is justice denied does have some truth to it. The longer a family dispute takes to be resolved, the worse the effects upon all involved, especially any children.

But no doubt the courts will continue to struggle on, as they always do. The system may be getting worse, but it is not yet broken.

And the Ministry of Justice says that it is taking measures to improve the timeliness of cases, including using temporary ‘Nightingale’ courts to provide additional venues to help cope with demand. The Ministry does say, however, that it may be some time until improvements are seen.

Avoiding delays

court failingsUnfortunately if you are involved in a public law case then there is little that you can do to speed matters up, as the things that affect how long it will take are largely beyond your control.

However, if you are involved in a private law case involving arrangements for your children or financial remedies then you can affect how long it will take.

And the best way to conclude matters quickly is to avoid court proceedings at all.

The way to avoid court proceedings is of course to agree matters, without having to wait for the court to decide them. There are various ways to reach agreement, be it a dispute over arrangements for children or over finances on divorce.

If you are not able reach agreement directly with the other party or through solicitors, you can try to agree matters through mediation or collaborative law, two procedures designed to help couples resolve disputes by agreement.

And if agreement is impossible then there is still another route to dispute resolution that is much quicker than going to court: arbitration, whereby a trained arbitrator will decide the matter for you.

In short, these latest statistics show that it is even more important to avoid contested court proceedings, if you possibly can.


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