The Ministry of Justice has released the quarterly Family Court statistics for the period of April to June 2016*, and it makes for difficult reading. The statistics show a 10% increase in all cases started in family courts in England and Wales compared to the same period last year, with a particularly sharp rise in the number of public law cases.
There is now an emerging annual trend in the rise of the number of cases before the Courts and individuals without representation. It does beg the question ‘What can be done to buck this trend?’ It may be stopping the closure of Courts; increasing the number of judges; or possibly reversing the legal aid changes so that individuals can have greater access to legal representation. Whatever the solution is, it certainly appears that something needs to change in order to greater facilitate individuals’ access to justice. A number of the solicitors at Goodman Ray are attending parliament in November this year with Resolution to ask MPs how this is going to be addressed.
Public Children Law
Over the last 12 months public law cases are up by 24%, which means a substantial increase in the number of children involved in care, supervision and emergency protection proceedings. The dramatic increase in these cases, which are usually brought by local authorities, is something which the Ministry of Justice is struggling to explain. In 2009 the Baby P (Child A) case in Haringey prompted a sharp rise in cases in the following years, but it is unclear if this is still an operative factor. However, in spite of the increased number of cases, the time taken to deal with care and supervision applications has remained fairly constant over the last year at about 27 weeks. This follows a long-term decrease following the implementation of the Family Justice Review 2011** recommendations. Before 2011 cases were, on average, taking over a year to complete.
The President of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir James Munby, has warned that in light of the constantly increasing number of care cases the family law system is “…facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis^.” Sir James has described it as an astonishing achievement that the average duration of cases has not increased markedly, but he fears that the system is at full capacity and any further increase in the number of cases will have a severe detrimental impact on the time taken to deal with care cases. It is suggested that a significant factor in the increase in case numbers must be attributed to changes in local authority behaviour. Identifying why local authorities are bringing so many more cases for children to be taken into care is a crucial question. To tackle the looming crisis, Sir James has identified a “…pressing need for a radical rebalancing of the very functions and purpose of the family courts^^.”
Private Children Law
The Ministry of Justice’s quarterly figures show that private law children cases are faring little better, with an increase of 16% since last year. These cases usually involve disputes between parents as to where children should live and how contact should be arranged. Again it seems unclear as to what has caused this increase.
There has also been a marked increase in divorce cases, with 10% more than in the same period last year. This is being attributed to the introduction of centralised divorce centres in London and the South East in 2015, and the subsequent backlog of cases. This increase appears to be adversely affecting those involved in divorce proceedings requiring a financial remedy as the time taken for these cases has increased from 20.5 weeks at the start of 2015 to 24.9 weeks in the period of April to June 2016. However, the time taken for divorce cases without a financial remedy has remained relatively stable over the last year.
Finally, the removal of legal aid for many cases, as introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, is continuing to have a dramatic effect on legal representation in the family courts. The percentage of private law cases where neither party had legal representation is currently 34%, a 17% increase since 2013. Again, this poses a significant challenge to the system, and it remains to be seen what impact these changes will have in the long term.