Family law

Just how much has the pandemic affected the workload of the Family Court?

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Walker Family Law
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Just how much has the pandemic affected the workload of the Family Court?

Like almost every other aspect of life in this country, the family justice system has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. But just how busy are the courts now, six months after lockdown began?

Every three months the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) publish statistics for the Family Court. The latest statistics, for the quarter April to June 2020, were published last week.


A substantial impact judges wig court room

The ‘headline’ point from the statistics is that Covid-19 and actions associated with it have had a “substantial impact” on the activity of the Family Court. We are told that:

“A significant decrease in most types of family justice has occurred in the current quarter. These reductions in new cases started [are] linked to Covid-19 measures undertaken by the courts. As a result, the data is unlikely to be representative of general trends.”

The measures taken by the courts are primarily related to social distancing, such as replacing in-court hearings with remote hearings. But there have also been temporary court closures and staff shortages, due to the need to self-isolate. No doubt also the pandemic discouraged many from initiating Family Court proceedings, at least initially.

Looking in a little more detail at the decrease in the number of cases started in the Family Courts, the statistics show that 56,867 new cases were started in April to June 2020, down 13% on the same quarter in 2019. This was due to a 30% decrease in financial remedy cases, a 24% decrease in adoption, an 18% decrease in matrimonial (primarily divorce) matters and a 7% decrease in private law children case starts.

The only exception to the general downward trend was in domestic violence remedy cases, which saw a 24% increase in new cases starting, and were at record levels since the MoJ began publishing the statistics in 2014.

But generally though the virus clearly caused a huge drop in the workload of the Family Court. A statistician does however give the following warning:

“While these statistics are still believed to be of interest to the public, it is worth noting that the significantly reduced volumes of cases starting mean that the data is unlikely to be representative of general trends for the family court system.

“Caution should therefore be used when interpreting and applying these figures.”

We are told that it is expected that “case volumes will return to historic trend levels and may even temporarily exceed the pre-covid-19 volumes as the backlog of cases is processed.”

In fact, we may already be seeing this.


Do the latest Cafcass figures tell a different story? central family court the court of protection

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’), the organisation that looks after the interests of children involved in family proceedings, publishes monthly figures for both public law (i.e. cases involving social services) and private law children demand, and the latest figures do seem to show family cases getting back to normal levels.

Cafcass say that in August they received 1,459 new public law cases, featuring 2,384 children, representing a decrease of just 2.7% (40 public law cases) on the 1,499 new public law cases received in August 2019. As to private law demand, Cafcass received 3,748 new private law cases in August 2020, which is just 14 cases (0.4%) more than the same period in 2019.

These figures do indicate that the workload of the Family Courts may already be back to near normal, at least in relation to children cases.

Of course, this does not mean that the operation of the Family Courts is getting back to anything like it was before the pandemic – if, indeed, it ever will. Remote hearings are still the norm, and, as the MoJ statistician pointed out, additional ‘Nightingale’ courts have been set up to deal with the huge backlog of cases caused by the pandemic.

Clearly, anyone involved in Family Court proceedings, or contemplating issuing proceedings, will have to bear these things in mind, and be prepared for their cases to take considerably longer than normal.

You can find the latest Family Court Statistics here.