Family justice system under strain
Family law

Latest statistics suggest a family justice system under strain

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The Ministry of Justice has published its latest quarterly statistics bulletin for the family justice system, for the period April to June 2023.

Family justice system under strainThe statistics provide a snapshot of the current state of the family justice system, and whilst some of the figures are good news, some most definitely are not.

Fewer divorces

Beginning with an item that may be considered good news, the number of divorce applications made in the quarter was down 30 per cent on the same quarter last year, to 24,624.

The quarter last year was of course the first one after the introduction of the new no-fault divorce system, so it was expected that the figure in that quarter would be higher than usual, with many couples waiting for the new law to come into force.

Some people feared that the new system, which arguably made divorce easier, would lead to an increase in the number of divorces. But this new figure, which is about the same as the quarterly figure before the introduction of no-fault divorce, suggests that this may not be so.

Another feature of the new system is that it introduced for the first time the possibility of both parties applying for the divorce jointly. The new figures indicate that about a quarter of all divorce applications are being made jointly.

Fewer public law children cases

Another welcome development is that the statistics show a 6 per cent reduction in the number of public law children cases (i.e. cases involving social services) being issued in the quarter, reducing the workload of an overburdened court system.

Unfortunately, for technical reasons the statistics do not on this occasion include figures for how long public law cases are taking to be dealt with, although the latest court management data, for July 2023, indicates that these cases are taking some 40 weeks on average, much longer than the 26 week period in which they should be dealt with.

Private law children cases taking longer

And that brings us to one of the most worrying statistics contained in the bulletin: the time taken for private law children cases (i.e. cases between parents sorting out arrangements for their children) to be dealt with.

The statistics show that whilst there was a welcome 4 per cent drop in the number of such cases being issued, the cases were taking on average 47 weeks to reach a final order. This is up almost 3 weeks from the same period in 2022, and continues an upward trend seen since 2016.

This really is a concerning statistic, caused by the high workload of the courts. The effect upon the families concerned, particularly the children, can only be imagined.

More financial remedy applications

Another unwelcome statistic with regard to the workload of the courts is an increase in the number of financial remedy applications issued during the quarter.

There were 11,040 financial remedy applications made in April to June 2023, which was up 20 per cent from the same period in 2022. Meanwhile, there was an increase in the number of such applications being disposed of by the courts, but this was only 15 per cent, so did not keep up with the number of new applications.

Of course, the main workload of the court comes from applications that are contested, rather than uncontested applications, where the parties are just seeking a consent order to give effect to an agreed settlement. Happily, only about a quarter of the applications were contested, with about the same number of contested applications being issued in each quarter over the last two years.

Fewer people represented at court

The figures also show how many people involved in family court cases had legal representation.

Legal aid was removed for private law cases in 2013, and the latest figures show that in April to June 2023, the proportion of case disposals where neither the applicant nor respondent had legal representation was 40 per cent, increasing by 26 per cent since January to March 2013, and a slight increase from April to June 2022.

Fewer cases settled via mediation

Finally, the statistics provide further disappointing news when it comes to mediation.

In the quarter family mediation starts decreased by 2 per cent, and total outcomes decreased by 3 per cent, of which 58 per cent were successful agreements, which is about half the number of successful agreements prior to the removal of legal aid in 2013.

This is disappointing, as the statistics clearly indicate that it would more than ever be beneficial to have family law matters resolved by agreement, rather than having to use the over-stretched court system.

All in all, these statistics provide little in the way of good news, and much that is not. The family justice system is still clearly under considerable strain, as it has been for some years now.

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