As I mentioned here on Friday, the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) has published its latest quarterly data on the volume of cases dealt with by family courts between April and June this year. It has also published its latest statistics relating to family mediation, which for some reason are tucked away in the latest legal aid statistics (the unstated reason being that mediation was supposed to ‘replace’ legal aid when legal aid was abolished for most private law family matters in 2013).
I thought I would have a closer look at the statistics, to see what, if anything, they reveal.
Mixed news on family courts
I’ll start with the family court statistics.
The good news, at least from the point of view of stress on the system and resultant delays (at least in the future), is that the number of cases starting in the family courts has decreased, whilst at the same time the number of cases that the courts have disposed of has increased. But let’s not get too carried away. The decrease was just 5% compared to the equivalent quarter last year.
The biggest fall was in ‘matrimonial’ cases, i.e. mainly divorce cases, where there were 13% fewer petitions than in the same period last year. This does seem to be a significant drop, but the reason behind it is quite simple: there was a surge in the number of divorce petitions in the same period last year, due possibly to the introduction of digital applications in May 2018.
On the other hand, there was an increase in the number of private law children applications started. The increase was quite small (3%), and in line with what Cafcass has been reporting for some time.
Where the news is not so good is in the area of timeliness, or how long cases are taking to be dealt with by the courts.
Care proceedings are supposed to be completed within 26 weeks. However, that target is receding into the optimistic imaginations of those who came up with it, at least for the average case. Only 41% of care cases met the target and the average time for care cases to be dealt with rose to 33 weeks, up 3 weeks from the same quarter in 2018. This is the longest average time to first disposal since the final quarter of 2013.
Similarly, private law cases are taking three weeks longer than in the same period in 2018, up to 28 weeks. This 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.
And divorce proceedings are also taking longer. The mean average time from the date of the petition to the date of the decree nisi was 33 weeks, up 5 weeks from the same period in 2018, and the mean average time from the date of the petition to the date of the decree absolute, finalising the divorce, was 58 weeks, also up 3 weeks compared to the same period in 2018. However, the MoJ point out that it is too early to make quarter on quarter comparisons on timeliness for the new digital system.
The last thing that I want to briefly mention from the family court statistics relates to legal representation of parties in private law children cases, a moot point since legal aid was abolished. The MoJ sets out the grim but unsurprising news:
“In April to June 2019, the proportion of disposals where neither the applicant nor respondent had legal representation was 39%, increasing by 25 percentage points since January to March 2013, and up 1 percentage point from April to June 2018. Correspondingly, the proportion of cases where both parties had legal representation went from 41% in January to March 2013 to 18% in April to June 2019, down 1 percentage point compared to the same period in 2018.”
In other words, if you want to make a children application, you are less likely to get legal representation, and the case will take longer. Such is progress.
Increase in cases going to mediation
I will finish on a slightly brighter note.
The mediation statistics show an increase in mediation starts of 22% and an increase in outcomes of 13%, the latter now sitting at around half of pre-abolition of legal aid levels.
The number of Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (‘MIAMs’) increased by 14% compared to the previous year and currently stand at just over a third of pre-abolition of legal aid levels. Anyone wishing to make an application in, or to initiate, family proceedings, has to attend a MIAM’, at which it will be considered whether the case is suitable for mediation, before making the application.
All good, but still not exactly a ringing endorsement of the government’s flagship policy to replace legal aid with mediation.