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Child care epidemic

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Only two days ago I said here that I don’t normally write about child care cases. Well, I’m going to break that rule again, although today I will not be writing about specific cases.

In another life I run a website that attempts, amongst other things, to catalogue every published family law judgment, or at least every judgment published since I began the site in 2009. In the process I try to label each judgment by its subject matter, such as divorce, financial remedies, etc. In doing so it has been impossible for me not to notice just how many judgments come under the label “Children: Care proceedings”. Just this year to date there have been some 240-odd care proceedings judgments.  That is nearly half of all of the family law judgments published so far this year. This strikes me as staggering, and worthy of comment, if not investigation.

Now, I know that some of the care proceedings judgments published this year were actually handed down in previous years, but that is only a small number. I also know that more care proceedings judgments are now being published than previously, in accordance with the President’s transparency guidance (the guidance itself can now be found here), but that only exposes what had already been occurring previously.

Obviously, figures for the number of published judgments mean little on their own, but the scale of the epidemic of child care cases is confirmed by other, more reliable and more meaningful, statistics.

Take, for example, the figures from Cafcass for care applications in England. They are currently receiving about 1,000 care applications every month. In the last full year, 2014-15, that involved 19,290 children. That is both an incredible and an appalling statistic – nearly 20,000 children a year involved in circumstances that cause local authorities sufficient concern to issue care proceedings (yes, I know that care orders are not made in all cases – I made that very point here two days ago). Remember, there are many more cases where there are concerns about the care given to children but care proceedings are never instituted (and there are also other types of public law child cases, such as supervision orders and emergency protection orders).

The harm done to the children in these cases is, of course, the greatest tragedy, but there are, of course, other costs beyond the families concerned, not least the cost in resources that the state has to expend to deal with all of these cases. I have no statistics for those, but I do have some statistics relating to the workload of the family courts.

In 2014 there were nearly 15,000 public law children cases started in the family courts of England and Wales. When compared to the total number of cases started of nearly a quarter of a million that may not sound like much, but what those bare figures do not show is the disproportionately high amount of court time devoted to the public law cases, when compared to other types of family law cases. In particular, fact-finding and final hearings in public law cases can often take up many days of court time, whereas final hearings in other types of cases, such as financial remedy cases, may only take half a day. Unfortunately, I can’t find any statistics indicating just how much court time public law cases use up.

Further to the above, the vast majority of other types of family cases are settled by agreement, without the need for a contested final hearing, whereas almost all child care cases proceed to a final hearing. Again, I don’t have any figures, but the statistics do show that public law cases, on average, do still take longer than all other types of family cases (despite the recent imposition of a 26 week ‘limit’ on care cases), which indicates that they are likely to take up more court time than other cases.

Now, I know that the number of child care cases rose significantly after the Baby P case in 2009, and that perhaps therefore it may reduce again in future, but still the scale of the epidemic is staggering. Some. I’m sure, will say that it indicates that the state is too eager to remove children from their parents. I make no comment on that here, but even if that were true, there are still an awful lot of parents who, for whatever reason, are failing to look after their children properly.

Of course, courts can only deal with the results of that. The real issue, surely, is preventing the problems in the first place. Perhaps as a society we should devote more effort to that, for example by way of education and confronting the issues surrounding bad parenting such as poverty, drugs and so on. Then we would surely save on the resources expended to deal with the results and, far more importantly, save many children from coming to harm.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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