A week in family law: Statistics, statistics, statistics… and a Supreme Court case

Family Law|April 5th 2019

As I reported here on Monday, in the last week we have been treated to the latest statistics for marriages, legal aid and the family court. As I have already written quite a bit about the statistics, I will limit myself here mostly to points that I did not cover in my post.

As to the marriage statistics, which were for 2016, these indicated not only that the number of marriages was up in that year but also some other interesting things, including that for the first time ever less than one-quarter (24%) of all marriages were religious ceremonies. Kanak Ghosh, of the Vital Statistics Outputs Branch at the Office for National Statistics, summarised the main points when commenting: “Marriage rates remain at historical lows despite a small increase in the number of people who got married in 2016. Most couples are preferring to do so with a civil ceremony and for the first time ever, less than a quarter of everyone who married had a religious ceremony. Meanwhile, the age at which people are marrying continues to hit new highs as more and more over 50s get married.” In summary, then, fewer people than in the past are wanting to get married, and those that do are tying the knot later, more often in a civil ceremony. Quite what we are to make of these facts, I’m not sure.

Moving on to the legal aid statistics (which were for the quarter October to December 2018), I have already mentioned in my post the small rise in mediations. Of course, the statistics related to much else, including the overall cost of legal aid. In that quarter legal aid granted in family cases amounted to £137 million, a decrease of 1% compared to the same period in 2017. Expenditure on public law cases was £117 million, which was up 1%, expenditure on private law cases was £20 million, which was down 15%, and expenditure on mediation was £1 million, which was up 3%. Not really any surprise there – I suppose the large drop in private law expenditure was due to the closure of cases that began before legal aid was abolished. Otherwise, the number of applications for legal aid supported by evidence of domestic violence or child abuse that were granted increased by 16% compared to the same period of the previous year. So a small bit of good news there.

As to the Family Court statistics, which were also for October to December 2018, including data for the whole of 2018, I’ve not really got much more I want to say over and above what I said in my post. Perhaps the one thing I should point out is the depressing figures regarding legal representation. The statistics showed that in 2018 the proportion of case disposals where neither the applicant nor respondent had legal representation was 37%, up 24 percentage points compared to 2012, before legal aid was abolished for most private law family matters, and up 1 percentage point from 2017. Correspondingly, the proportion of cases where both parties had legal representation dropped by 25 percentage points, to 20% over the same period. Cases with at least one hearing where the proportion of parties with legal representation dropped from 59% in 2012 to 35% in 2018. Bad news, both for litigants struggling to represent themselves, and for the courts having to deal with more litigants in person.

And finally, a case that was not strictly related to family law, but is I’m sure of interest to both family lawyers and those involved, or who have been involved, in acrimonious divorce proceedings. On Wednesday the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Stocker v Stocker, which arose from a woman posting on Facebook that her former husband had tried to strangle her. The ex-husband issued proceedings against the woman, claiming that the statement was defamatory, as it suggested he tried to kill her. Initially he won his case in the High Court, after it was ruled that people reading the woman’s post would have thought he tried to kill her. However, the woman appealed to the Supreme Court, which found that the “ordinary reader” would have understood the comments to mean he grasped the neck of his ex-wife, and not that he tried to kill her. Accordingly, the appeal was allowed. You can read the full judgment of the Supreme Court here.

Have a good weekend.

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.

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