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Why the continued rise in private law children cases?

Most months I briefly mention here the latest monthly statistics from Cafcass for care applications and private law demand. I did so last Friday. As regular readers may have noticed, the figures for private law demand have been heading inexorably upwards. I thought it might be time to have a closer look at those figures, and speculate as to what may be behind the rise.

Please note at the outset that I use the word ‘speculate’. I do so on purpose. I fully acknowledge that any thoughts I may have as to what is behind the figures are formulated on the basis of my own limited knowledge, but I simply do not have the time or resources to make a detailed investigation. Still, I have been following closely what has been happening in the family justice system for quite a few years now, and so hopefully I have something useful to add to the debate.

Before I proceed I should set out what is meant by ‘private law demand’. This is explained by Cafcass as follows:

“Private law demand is generally used to refer to applications made following a divorce or separation about the arrangements for children, such as where a child will live or with whom a child will spend time.”

Cafcass goes on to explain exactly what the figures mean:

“In private law the unit of measurement is a case (note a case can involve multiple children and multiple application types). These are counted upon receipt of the application from the court and entry into the [Cafcass] database.”

To go into just a little more detail for the benefit of those who don’t know, this does not mean that every private law (i.e. not made by a local authority) court application relating to arrangements for children (including for prohibited steps and specific issue orders) is included as soon as the application is made. Only when the court has considered the case and decided that a court welfare officer’s report is required is the application referred to Cafcass. Admittedly, this does include most applications, but some, particularly simple cases, or cases where the parents are agreed, or are close to agreement, will not be referred to Cafcass. For example, in the third quarter of 2018 (the last full quarter for which family court statistics have been published by the Ministry of Justice) the family courts received 13,444 private law children applications, whereas during that period only 11,411 applications were received by Cafcass (yes, I know that some of the applications may have been issued before that quarter, but you take my point – hopefully!). In short, a Cafcass case is likely to be a case that is contested by the parents, at least at the outset.

OK, so what do the statistics from Cafcass say? Well, I won’t go into all of the details (which you can find at the link below), but essentially private law demand has been increasing each year since 2013, the year that legal aid was abolished for most private law matters (more of which in just a moment). Thus between April 2014 and March 2015 Cafcass received a total of 34,119 new private law cases, increasing to 37,415 the next year, 40,536 the year after that and 41,844 in the year to March 2018. These figures represented year-on-year increases of 10%, 8% and 3.3%.

And the increases have continued since then. For example, the latest figure, for last month, was 20.2% higher than February 2018. Cafcass say that they consider this figure to be an ‘outlier’ compared to recent years (they don’t explain why they think this), but other recent monthly figures have also been higher, albeit not usually by quite so much.

I should say at this point that the increased demand reported by Cafcass is reflected by the Ministry of Justice’s statistics, although the latter are not as recent.

Alright, so what is behind the continued rise?

I will assume in what follows that the increase is not due to any population changes, whether in numbers or demographics. Certainly, I am not aware of any such changes, and in any event they surely wouldn’t have occurred over such a short period.

I also think we can dismiss the idea that there have been more relationship breakdowns since 2013. We don’t of course have figures for breakdowns of cohabiting relationships, but the number of couples divorcing has actually decreased over recent years. Whatever, there is nothing to suggest that relationship breakdown is in the rise.

Obviously, a big factor in the rise is what I will call the ‘bounce-back’ from the downtown following the abolition of legal aid. To explain, just before legal aid was abolished there was a surge in applications, with parents trying to get their cases in while they could still get legal aid. After legal aid was abolished, there was a corresponding drop in the number of applications. Clearly, that could not continue, hence the rise in applications since.

But the duration of the increase in private law demand seems to have been far longer than could be explained simply by ‘bounce-back’. Surely, that would have run its course after a couple of years (by, say, 2016)? There seems to be another factor, or other factors, at work.

Lack of lawyers to ‘weed out’ applications, either because they are without merit or, more commonly, because the lawyers help parents settle matters without going to court, must surely be one of those factors. We know, for example, that the number of cases being referred to mediation has dropped dramatically since the abolition of legal aid, as lawyers are no longer there to refer cases to mediation (or, more accurately, to advise parties as to the existence and benefits of mediation). Without lawyers, parents are rushing off to court when perhaps they don’t need to.

Which brings me to my last point. Are parents increasingly being encouraged to go to court by non-lawyer ‘advisers’? Without the availability of lawyers parents are often having to turn to unqualified people for assistance. Could it be that those people are advising them to argue matters when they shouldn’t (either because they don’t have a good case, or simply because the matter should be capable of being agreed), and then to go to court when either they shouldn’t, or it shouldn’t be necessary?

I’m sure there are factors that I’ve missed, and that others will disagree with some or all of my points (one matter I haven’t looked at is whether there are differences in the situation in different parts of the country, something covered by the data published by Cafcass). Still, this is clearly a discussion that we need to have, as it obviously impacts upon the ability of the court to deal with cases in a timely fashion, particularly at a time when resources are scarce.

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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