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Family law

Is the pressure on the family courts finally easing?

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James Harbottle
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Is the pressure on the family courts finally easing?

Sandy Powell – Senior Solicitor – Child Law Specialist

Anyone who has taken an interest in family law over the last few years will be aware of the strain that the family courts have been under, with seemingly ever-increasing caseloads.

This has been the case in both public law children cases (involving social services) and private law children cases (concerning disputes between parents over arrangements for their children).

But the latest statistics from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’), the organisation that looks after the interests of children involved in family proceedings, suggest that a corner may have been turned, in relation to both public and private law children cases.

Cafcass keep records of both the number of public law applications (I.e. usually for care orders) and private law demand (usually applications made following a divorce or separation about the arrangements for children, such as where a child will live or with whom a child will spend time).

Year-on-year increases

The Cafcass figures show that the number of public law children cases has been increasing pretty well every year since 2010. The number of care applications received by Cafcass per 10,000 child population was 8.0 in 2009/10. This rose to 12.3 in 2016/17, and stood at 10.8 in 2019/20.

As to private law children applications, Cafcass annual summaries going back to 2016 show a continued year-on-year increase in new cases, from 40,506 in 2016/17 to 45,780 in 2020/21.

The reasons for the increase in children cases differ between public and private law cases.Office meeting shot

As to public law cases these began to increase some years ago, following criticism of councils by the courts in several high-profile cases – councils became more careful not to miss children who were vulnerable to harm, and therefore issued more proceedings. And more recently, the pandemic appears to have led to more parents having difficulties looking after their children.

As to private law cases, the abolition of legal aid in 2013 has had a considerable impact. Legal advice as to what can, and more importantly cannot, be achieved by court proceedings can reduce the number of cases going to court. And many cases can be settled with the help of lawyers, before they ever get to court.

These increases have put an enormous strain upon the system. Court lists have grown longer, with the result that cases have had to wait longer to be heard. This, in turn, has had a huge adverse effect upon the families involved, especially of course the children.

For public law cases there is a 26 week time limit, within which the cases should be heard. The increase in cases has meant that that time limit is now often missed – in the quarter January to March this year, the average time for cases to be disposed of was 43 weeks, the highest average since mid-2012, and only 22 per cent of care cases were dealt with within 26 weeks.

There is no such time limit for private law children cases, but private law cases are still experiencing long delays

Mother and child

Some good news

So to the latest Cafcass statistics.

Starting with public law children cases, Cafcass say that they received 1,481 new cases in July 2021, featuring 2,331 children. This represents a decrease of 14.3% (248 public law cases) and a decrease of 16.3% (453 children) on the 1,729 new public law cases received and the 2,784 children on those cases in July 2020.

And it’s not just July. This is the fourth month running that Cafcass have received fewer cases than in the same month last year.

As to private law children cases, Cafcass received 3,774 new cases in July 2021, which is 740 cases (16.4%) less than the same period in 2020. These cases involved 5,588 children, which is 1,305 (-18.9%) less children than July 2020.

The trend, however, in monthly private law cases is perhaps not quite so clear, although the comparable months last year may have seen fewer cases, due to the effect of the pandemic.

Whatever, there are now some hopeful signs that perhaps that corner has finally been turned. Let us hope so, for the sake of all involved, especially the children.