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Not much good news in the latest family court statistics

Latest family court statistics

The Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) has published its latest set of quarterly statistics on the work of the Family Court, for July to September 2019.

And they don’t exactly make cheerful reading. Amongst the headlines are: an increase in the workload of the Family Court, care proceedings taking longer, and fewer litigants having legal representation. As we will see in a moment, there were some positives, but they were few and far between.

Let’s look at those headlines in a little more detail.

Increased workload

This is interesting. We are told that:

“In July to September 2019, 67,431 new cases started in family courts, up 1% on the equivalent quarter in 2018. This was due to a 23% rise in domestic violence cases started, along with increases in Private law [children] (5%) and Public law [children] (1%) case starts. However, there were decreases in new adoption (8%), matrimonial (3%) and financial remedy (1%) case starts compared to the same period last year.”

Obviously, the stand-out figure here is the huge 23% increase in domestic violence cases. Why could that be? Well, the MoJ speculate that:

“The increase in applications and orders may be linked to changes in legislation which were introduced in January 2018. Changes to legal aid eligibility introduced new forms of evidence, expanded the scope of existing evidence and completely removed the time limit from all forms of evidence for domestic abuse. These changes have made it easier for victims, or those at risk, of domestic abuse to obtain and provide the evidence required to access legal aid, and in doing so, this may have impacted on the number of domestic violence applications and orders.”

That does seem to be a likely explanation, although if it is correct then one wonders how many victims of abuse were unable to obtain protection prior to the legal aid eligibility changes.

Overall, though, the increase in workload, though only 1%, must still be a concern, given the pressure that the courts are already under.

Longer care proceedings

As the MoJ explains, the Children and Families Act 2014 introduced a time limit for care proceedings, by specifying that they should be disposed of “without delay, and in any event within twenty-six weeks beginning with the day on which the application was issued”. This has turned out to be more of an aspiration than an expectation. The statistics tell us that the average time for care proceedings is continuing its upward trend:

“The average time for a care and supervision case to reach first disposal was 33 weeks in July to September 2019, up 3 weeks from the same quarter in 2018 and the highest average since early 2014.”

Only 42% of cases managed to keep to the 26-week limit. So much for “in any event”.

Fewer represented litigants

This is all so depressingly familiar. We are reminded that legal aid was abolished for most private law family matters in April 2013 and are then told that:

“In July to September 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 2 percentage points from July to September 2018.

“Correspondingly, the proportion of cases where both parties had legal representation went from 41% in January to March 2013 to 19% in July to September 2019, down 1 percentage point compared to the same period in 2018.”

The problems that the lack of representation cause both for the courts and the litigants themselves cannot be overstated. Judges have to make allowances for unrepresented litigants and have to make decisions without having heard full arguments. And litigants have to manage on their own or, worse still, with poor or bad advice from unqualified McKenzie Friends – a subject to which I will return later this week.

Quicker divorces

And now for a small piece of good news. We are told that:

“For those granted Decree Nisi in July to September 2019, the mean average time from the date of petition was 30 weeks, down 1 week from the same period in 2018 and down over 3 weeks since a peak in April to June 2019. The mean average time from petition to Decree Absolute was 54 weeks, down 2 weeks from July to September 2018 and down from a peak of 59 weeks in January to March 2019.”

The MoJ gives as a possible explanation: “The increasing share of petition work moving online is likely to reduce the average time of divorce proceedings”.

All in all, though, the bad news clearly outweighs the good and is surely further confirmation of a system under increasing strain. One can only hope that the necessary resources will be found to relieve that strain before the system breaks entirely.

You can find the latest family court statistics here.

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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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