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