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Delving a little deeper into the latest Family Court statistics

These days we are inundated with a mass of statistics relating to family law matters, from family court statistics, to legal aid statistics, child maintenance statistics and statistics for just about every other matter that is capable of quantification. Of course, all of these statistics are only useful if you can interpret them – particularly in order to uncover important trends.

So it was with some interest that I discovered a useful new tool amongst the Family Court statistics that were published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) last week. (Admission time: when I say ‘new’, I mean new to me – the tool has been included in the statistics since June 2016, but I’ve been too unobservant to notice it previously, despite being on the mailing list for all Family Court statistics quarterly bulletins).

The tool is the ‘data visualisation tool’. As the MoJ explains:

“The tool provides users with the capability to:

  • interrogate the published information at a lower level of detail, e.g. by region; and
  • access and produce a range of charts specific to their user requirements.”

It’s that second point in particular that makes the tool useful, as it’s obviously easier to interpret charts than raw figures. The charts are mostly interactive, so that you can filter out the information that you don’t want, for example by region or case type, and thereby concentrate upon the matters that are of most interest to you. The possibilities seem almost endless, although one word of warning: the tool was a bit slow and ‘clunky’, for me at least. It did not, for example, always respond as anticipated.

So what can we glean from the latest Family Court statistics, which are for the period October to December 2017?

Well, the headlines don’t tell us an awful lot that is of particular interest: there was very little change in the overall number of new cases started in family courts in 2017 compared to 2016. Meanwhile, the number of public law cases starting in 2017 was up slightly (1 per cent) compared to 2016, and the number of private law cases started increased by 5 per cent in 2017 compared to 2016.

Slightly more interestingly, we are told that the number of divorce petitions issued in 2017 was the lowest annual figure recorded since the Family Court statistics quarterly began, which I think was in 2014.

But important trends of course only become apparent over the longer term, and this is where the data visualisation tool, and the charts it provides, come into its own. Take, for example, the very first chart, for cases started per quarter, by case type. The first thing one notices is the obvious effect of the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters in 2013, with the figures dropping drastically at that time for the number of divorces, private law children applications and financial remedy applications being issued. For each of those three types of application, the figures have ‘recovered’ somewhat since, but are still not back to their pre-2013 levels.

Similarly, the second chart shows cases started per quarter by region and this illustrates very clearly the dramatic effect of the introduction of divorce centres in 2015, with divorces issued in London being replaced by divorces issued in the south east divorce centre at Bury St Edmunds.

There are subsequent charts going into greater detail for each type of family matter, and I’ll leave it for the reader to look at them if they are interested. The final matter that I wanted to look at here relates to the ‘mean timeliness’ of family cases, a factor that will of course be of great interest to anyone actually using the family courts system.

Again, there are subsequent charts going into greater detail regarding the timeliness of cases for each type of family matter, but the overall picture is contained in figure two, which has charts by region and case type.

The most striking thing appears on the latter: the graph for public law matters, from 2011 to 2017, showing the effect of the 26 week timetable upon the mean duration of such cases, which has reduced from about 50 weeks in 2011 to around 27 weeks in 2014. A victory for the timetable, but at what cost to the courts, lawyers and other professionals involved in such case?

The other thing that is nearly as striking appears on the former chart, showing timeliness of case by region: if your case is in London, then it’s going to take quite a bit longer. By contrast, the same chart appears to indicate that if your case is outside of London, then it is likely to be dealt with a little more quickly now than it was back in 2011.

These are, of course, just a few nuggets taken from the mine of statistics. As I indicated earlier, the possibilities for digging up interesting gems of information are seemingly endless. If you want to do a bit if mining of your own, you can find the latest Family Court statistics quarterly, including the data visualisation tool, here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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