Family Court statistics paint picture of backlogs and delays
Aug 1, 2022
In his latest blog, family law blogger John Bolch examines the situation of family courts and questions whether things will ever improve with a system stretched to full capacity and, some might say, beyond.
The Ministry of Justice recently published its latest quarterly statistics for the work of the Family Court, for January to March 2022. They do not make happy reading, telling of a system stretched to full capacity and, some might say, beyond.
Fewer cases started, but fewer disposed of
The statistics begin with what appears to be good news. We are told that in January to March 2022, 68,134 new cases were started in the family courts, which is down 6% on the equivalent quarter in 2021.
This drop was due to decreases in most case types, including 18% fewer financial remedy cases started, 9% fewer private law children cases (i.e. children cases not involving social services) started, and 2% fewer divorce cases started.
There was, however, a 4% increase in new public law children cases (i.e. children cases involving social services), and a 2% increase in new domestic abuse cases.
Disposal of cases
But this is of course only good news if the courts are disposing of the same or more cases than have already started, so that the workload of the courts is actually decreasing.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. In fact, the number of cases disposed of in the quarter was only 57,094, down 12% on the equivalent quarter of 2021.
This drop, we are told, was due to decreases in most case types disposed of, including 21% fewer divorce cases, 16% fewer public law cases, and 7% fewer financial remedy cases.
The net result, of course, is that the Family Court was even busier at the end of the quarter than it was at the start.
And obviously in the absence of additional resources (an unlikely scenario given current government attitudes towards the justice system), a busier court inevitably means that cases will take longer to be dealt with.
And sure enough, the statistics tell of appalling delays in cases being dealt with, particularly those relating to children.
Proceedings and time limits
As to public law cases, care proceedings should be dealt with within a 26-week limit introduced in 2014, but many cases are missing that limit by a very significant margin.
The statistics show that the average time for a care and supervision case to reach first disposal was 49 weeks in January to March 2022, which is up 6 weeks from the same quarter in 2021, and the highest average since 2012.
Only 17% of care proceedings disposals occurred within the 26-week limit, down 5 percentage points from the same period last year, and the lowest recorded since 2012.
Not forgetting private law child cases…
And the picture was just as bad for private law children cases.
In January to March 2022, it took on average 46 weeks for private law cases to reach a final order, i.e. case closure, which is up 7 weeks from the same period in 2021, and the highest value since the present records began in 2011.
This increase continues an upward trend seen since the middle of 2016, when the number of new cases overtook the number of cases disposed of.
Unprecedented and unacceptable delays
And that last point is important: it has been suggested in some quarters that the pandemic was largely to blame for the position that the Family Court finds itself in. But clearly, and as any family lawyer will know, the problems of caseload were building up long before the pandemic.
Those problems have been largely caused by government policy over the last twelve years, including cutbacks, court closures and the abolition of legal aid for many who require the help of the family courts. Unsurprisingly, all of this hasn’t escaped the notice of those who use the family justice system.
Commenting upon the statistics, Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce spoke of the immense pressure that the family courts are under, and of the “unprecedented and unacceptable delays” that people with private law cases are experiencing.
She said: “We have persistently voiced our concern about the significant backlogs in the family courts – which pre-date the pandemic. Delays can cause significant harm as well as uncertainty for the parties involved.”
After specifically mentioning the delays in children cases and the impact upon the children involved, she made this appeal: “The UK government must ensure, so far as possible, that there are sufficient fee-paid and full-time judges to deal with existing and new caseloads.”
And she also suggested another solution to the problem, saying:
“Restoring early legal advice for family law cases would … mean fewer cases would go to court. Instead, solicitors could assist negotiated settlements, refer clients to mediation and better manage client expectations.”