A worrying trend in children cases

Family | 13 Oct 2014 3

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The latest monthly figures for cases received by Cafcass were published on Friday. However, I have been looking at the historic statistics for private law cases that they have received. It is well known that the number of cases they have been receiving recently is lower than previously, but if you look at the figures for the last few years, rather than simply for the last month, you see just how worrying the trend really is.

Just to explain for those who don’t know, ‘Cafcass’ stands for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and one of its primary functions is to provide courts with reports regarding the welfare of children involved in court proceedings. In this post I am only considering private law cases, i.e. cases that do not involve a local authority (such as care proceedings). Most private law cases concern applications by parents for court orders regarding the arrangements for their children, including the parent with whom the children are to live and what contact the other parent should have with their children.

The statistics published by Cafcass are for the number of requests for reports that they receive from the courts. Note that reports are not requested in all cases – the courts are very aware of the public expense involved in the preparation of reports, and of the pressure of work on Cafcass. Accordingly, reports will not normally be requested in straightforward cases or cases where it appears that the parents will be able to reach agreement.

The statistics are prepared for financial years (April to the following March), so I will keep to that format. For the four financial years from 2010-2011 to 2013-2014 the total figures stayed pretty similar, varying from a low of 41,787 in 2011-12 to a high of 46,558 in 2013-14. The average monthly number of cases during those four years was 3,700.

In April 2013 legal aid was, of course, abolished for private law children cases, and this is reflected in the ‘rush’ of cases trying to beat the abolition deadline, with a peak of 5,009 cases in May 2013 (applications made in April wouldn’t have got to court until May, which is when the courts would have ordered reports). After May 2013, there was a sharp reduction in the number of cases, with the average monthly number between then and March 2014 being 3,724.

It is after this, however, that things get particularly worrying. For the six months of this financial year there have been 16,267 cases, an average of just 2,711 per month. By my calculation that is a reduction of some 27% from the average monthly figure for the previous four years. That, I think, is a staggering figure.

What can be behind this reduction? Well, obviously there will be monthly fluctuations in the numbers of couples separating and the number of applications to the court, but not over a period of a whole six months.

Now, if there had been a corresponding increase in the number of cases going to mediation, then that could explain the reduction. This, however, has not happened. In fact, the number of legally aided mediations has plummeted and the government is desperately scrabbling to increase the uptake.

Clearly, fewer people are prepared to go to court to sort out arrangements for their children without the assistance of legal representation. What are they doing instead? Are they amicably sorting out those arrangements with their former partner? I think not – before the abolition of legal aid only those cases that could not be settled (about ten per cent) went to court. The cases going to court were therefore the ‘difficult’ ones, where settlement was unlikely. There is no reason why in 27 per cent of those cases amicable settlement should suddenly become possible.

No, what is happening is that people are simply giving up. Thus, the mother who is being bullied by her former partner is having to agree arrangements with which she is unhappy and the father who is being denied contact with his children is having to walk away. Or, worse still, those parents are taking the law into their own hands.

In short, a very large number of people are clearly being denied access to the law. The consequences of this for them, and more particularly for the children involved, are potentially devastating, yet no one in the corridors of power seems to care.

Photo by Thomas Leth-Olsen via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. Guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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    1. Nick Langford says:

      I agree with this entirely; while more parents should be encouraged to resolve their disputes without going to court, this is not the way to achieve it.

    2. Luke says:

      “No, what is happening is that people are simply giving up. Thus, the mother who is being bullied by her former partner is having to agree arrangements with which she is unhappy and the father who is being denied contact with his children is having to walk away.”
      The other possibility that you dismiss IS plausible.
      With legal aid it was usually given to one party and not the other, so the party without legal aid was often at a MASSIVE disadvantage. The party with Legal Aid knew this and would then be much keener to drag it out in court and force the other party to settle for a poor decision in order to stop the continual financial costs of their own lawyer.
      So now that advantage has been taken away many who would have done this have been forced to be reasonable and come to an agreement.
      Is this the whole story ? No, of course not, but John your article in not even considering such a possibility is misleading at best.

    3. George Statingfield says:

      Hang on Mr Bolch!

      The government, judiciary and many lawyers have been saying for decades that ‘only’ 10% of separated couples are unable to sort out arrangements between themselves after separation. 90% perfectly happily sort out their arrangements we were told, simply because they did not go to court.

      Now many of us have been saying for decades that of the 90% who do not go to court probably the majority have NOT sorted it out amicably but the father (usually) has given up or not bothered if there is a hostile or controlling mother who limits or stops the children spending time with him.

      Most of these 90% are guided by what they believe happens in the courts, which is that the mother decides and the father takes what he is given. They are not able or prepared to go through the family courts, knowing they are ineffective, expensive and time consuming.

      Therefore we end up with 1 in 4 children having little or no relationship with their father after separation or 1 in 3 in poorer areas.

      Which is why having Shared Parenting Legislation was essential to send a message to UK parents, judiciary and others that both parents are important to children (this was torpedoed by lawyer groups and others who had a vested interest in keeping the status quo).

      Now you are saying because Lawyers back pockets are being hit by Legal Aid reforms which quite rightly stop the abuse of Legal Aid by the primary carer (mothers usually), who use it to stop fathers or limit their time with the children, paid for by the State, there is a problem.

      No. I would wager that there has been a corresponding increase in children seeing their fathers more now that the legal aid reforms have kicked into place. Because the mothers in the 10% group who abused legal aid cannot now do so have come to an arrangement.

      However, the 90% is still pretty much the same, many are fathers usually who just believe they are not able to get justice in the family courts for their children and them and so do not bother to torture themselves by using the family court system.

      ONLY Shared Parenting legislation will begin to address this for the vast majority of separated parents who are not so-called primary carers and particularly their children, whose relationship is destroyed by the system that values one parent far more than the other and will not take effective measures to ensure children have both parents in their lives after separation.

      Luke is entirely correct about Legal Aid.

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