Today we welcome Michael Lewkowicz. Director of Communications at Families need Fathers to the Stowe Family Law blog with the first in a series of exclusive articles.
“Over the few years, I have attended various Cafcass events – open board meetings, conferences, consultations. Occasionally their chief executive, Anthony Douglas, ‘clarified’ that whilst there were tens of thousands of court applications for Child Arrangements, they represent just 10% of family separations with 90% resolving things out-of-court. ‘Great’ one might have thought, ‘so it’s not such a big issue for most separating families’. The prevailing narrative was that many of those were then resolved adequately before full proceedings. Some came to mutual agreements in early proceedings and only a very small proportion, the story went, perhaps under 5% formed the ‘difficult’ cases that involved ‘high conflict’ – the cases that nobody could really “expect” to do anything about. The message was not quite ‘well that’s alright then’, but it seemed to be heading in that direction.
It was something of concern, but never became a priority and all those thousands of dads, mums and grandparents coming to Families Need Fathers and family lawyers for help were at best unlucky to be faced with confrontational ex-partners or perhaps mutually confrontational or, worse still, the ones made to feel responsible for the conflict.
The trouble was, that visits to our support meetings did not seem to reflect this. It was affecting too many people and, guess what, many of them were lovely people who would not say ‘boo to a goose’.
More troubling still was that the numbers, that the ‘small minority’ narrative was based on, simply did not ring true. I’m no mathematical genius, but if there are some 50,000 court applications each year, less 30% return cases leaves 35,000 new applications. If these represent 10% of separations, then the implication is that there are some 350,000 break-ups a year. Assuming an average of 2 children per case (Cafcass average figures) implies 700,000 children involved. Since the number of births in England and Wales in 2017 was 679,106 the figures suggested that every single family separated before their children left school. Spot a problem? We did.
Over subsequent months we raised this with Cafcass’ newly appointed Director of Strategy, Teresa Williams. The great news was that she too thought this was odd. Some months later I bumped into Ms Williams again and was very reassured when she said Cafcass were re-calculating this and were getting nearer the reality – which was over a third of cases! In fact, Cafcass later reported that the figures looked like being 38%, a nearly four-fold increase over the widely quoted previous value!
Now we had, in the absence of detailed data, made some estimates of our own using a range of disparate sources and came up with a figure of slightly over half. Since then Cafcass, at their most recent open board meeting, told us that about a third of cases were families returning to court.
We knew returns to be frequent, but this was higher than we imagined. We speculate that returns have grown in recent years since the guidance was issued exhorting judges to end proceedings within six months. This is good for court statistics showing that cases have been disposed of quickly but can lead to some cases being prematurely closed.
Taking all this into account, our original estimate seems not to have been that far off the mark. The new Cafcass figure certainly cuts right through what now seems to have been a surprisingly long run of what might these days be considered ‘fake news’. The President, no not Trump, but of The Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, observed the shift in presumed wisdom in his speech last week to The Resolution Conference.
Sir Andrew told the conference that this is
“a far cry from the previous comfortable urban myth based on a figure of 10%. It indicates a major societal problem…”.
The importance of understanding that the true proportions of families going to court is almost four times greater than previously thought was also brought into sharp focus just a few weeks ago at the APPG on Legal Aid. We drew attention to the long-term opportunity to diminish the reliance of separating parents on family courts from a up to half of cases to around the level of 2% – that was being achieved in Sweden. The minister, Lucy Frazer MP, responded by ‘correcting’ us and reciting the 10% figure from the old narrative that the opportunity was not really that big nor worth the government prioritising it. My brief interjection to the minister received a frosty response from the chair – our apologies for this.
We have now written to the minister with an update and we hope Cafcass will have updated her too. The desperate need for reform of family justice is now even clearer. Unquestionably, for tens of thousands of needlessly damaged children and parents, that reform is very urgent.”
Families need Fathers (FNF)
FNF is a leading UK charity supporting dads, mums and grandparents to have personal contact and meaningful relationships with their children following separation. They offer information, advice and support services on how to provide the best possible blend of both parents in the lives of children.
You can find further information on the Families need Fathers website.