A closer look at the latest Family Court statistics

Family Law|Industry News|July 2nd 2019

Last Friday I mentioned here that the latest Family Court statistics, for the quarter January to March 2019, had been published by the Ministry of Justice. There is actually quite a lot that is of interest in the statistics, so I thought I would take a closer look.

The statistics look at the work of the Family Court under various headings. I will restrict myself here to the headings that I think would be of most interest to readers of this blog.

But first, an overview. The ‘headline’ point from the statistics is that there has been an increase in the number of cases started in the Family Courts. In that quarter, 66,340 new cases were started, up 5% on the equivalent quarter in 2018. This, as we will see in a moment, was due to a 15% rise in domestic violence cases started, along with increases in private law (12%) and matrimonial (divorce, civil partnership dissolution and judicial separation – 6%) case starts compared to the same period last year. However, there were decreases in new public law (9%), financial remedy (4%), and adoption (2%) cases started.

OK, now let’s look at those headings, starting with new private law children applications. These were up 12% on the equivalent quarter in 2018, to 14,131, and involved 32,092 children. Thankfully, the number of cases disposed of during that period kept up (20,441, up 11% on the equivalent quarter in 2018), meaning that the net effect (in theory, anyway) was that the overall work of the court in this area did not increase.

Obviously, the length of time that a case takes to be dealt with is of great interest to litigants. The statistics tell us that in January to March 2019 it took on average 29 weeks for private law cases to reach a final order, i.e. case closure. This is up nearly 4 weeks on the same period in 2018, and continues the upward trend seen since the middle of 2016, where the number of new cases started overtook the number of disposals, creating a greater number of outstanding cases.

Moving on to the thorny issue of legal representation, we are told that in January to March 2019, the proportion of disposals where neither the applicant nor respondent had legal representation was 38%, an increase of 24 percentage points since January to March 2013, just before legal aid was abolished for most private law family matters, and up 2 percentage points from January to March 2018. Correspondingly, the proportion of cases where both parties had legal representation dropped from 41% in January to March 2013 to 19% in January to March 2019, 1 percentage point lower than the same period in 2018. Wonderful.

The statistics for divorce are in some ways the most concerning. We are told that there were 29,136 divorce petitions made during January to March 2019, up 6% from the same quarter in 2018. However, the time taken to deal with divorces is the worrying thing. The Ministry of Justice say:

“For those granted decree nisi in January to March 2019, the average time from the date of petition was 33 weeks, up 6 weeks from the same period in 2018, whilst the average time from petition to decree absolute was 59 weeks. These represent the highest figures so far for the periods covered by this bulletin, and is a result of divorce centres processing a backlog of older cases.”

These statistical bulletins have been published (to my knowledge) since July 2014. However, I have seen it said that the 59 week period is a record. Whether this is true I don’t know, but even if not it is still a pretty appalling figure. I note what is said about the divorce centre backlog, but I have seen a great deal of anecdotal evidence from practitioners which suggests that the problem of inefficient divorce centres will not be easily resolved.

The news on financial remedy cases is at least a little better. We are told that there were 10,567 financial remedy applications and 10,119 financial remedy disposals in January to March 2019, both down 5% on the equivalent quarter in 2018. There is no word on how much time applications took to be dealt with.

Finally, we come to domestic violence remedy applications. We are told that these increased by 15% compared to January to March 2018. That seems a big jump to me, but sadly no explanation for it is suggested. We are, however, told that applications for non-molestation orders have shown a gradually increasing trend over time, while applications for occupation orders (i.e. usually orders requiring the perpetrator to vacate the home) have remained steady.

You can find the full statistics 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.

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