Soaring family court delays mean children involved in private law cases are waiting 47 weeks – almost a year – on average to find out who they will be living with long term.
This is according to data published by the Ministry of Justice, which also highlighted a four-week increase in the delays affecting such cases in the first quarter of 2023 compared with the same period last year.
This continues an upward trend seen since the middle of 2016, where the number of new cases overtook the number of closed cases.
There were 13,936 new private law applications during this period, similar to the equivalent quarter in 2022. 20,575 individual children were involved in these applications.
“We have long voiced our concern about the delays in the family courts, which will have a detrimental impact on families seeking justice,” said Law Society President Lubna Shuja, continuing:
“Delays in cases are exacerbating the uncertainty facing families. This must be addressed before the family court system collapses.
These delays are preventing parents from being able to see their children and could mean children are left without the stability they need to thrive.
Restoring early legal advice for family cases would mean fewer cases would go to court. Instead, solicitors could assist negotiated settlements, refer clients to mediation and better manage client expectations.”
What’s more, in January to March 2023, the number of cases where neither party had representation was 40% – an increase of some 300% since 2013. On this, Lubna Shuja said:
“It is no surprise that parties are still fighting their cases without legal representation. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) saw large areas of legal aid cut overnight.
Parties without representation require more time and support from the court, which is likely to slow down the system even more and increase overall costs.
Early legal advice would mean families have the support they need and would also make a cost-effective contribution to resolving the backlogs in the family courts.”
Teresa Cullen, family law partner at Fladgate, said:
“Sadly, as with all statistics this does not reflect the large number of high conflict cases that can take many years to make their way through the Court system.
Whilst to adults an increased delay of four weeks may be concerning but manageable. It needs to be viewed in the context that within the 13,000 new applications made this quarter are 20,575 individual children whose lives are being affected by this delay.
Depending on the age of that child, if cases relating to such basics as: ‘where am I going to live?; how often will I see Mum / Dad?; where will I go to school?; or spend the summer holidays?’, these take the average time of a nearly a year – for a four-year old child, that is a quarter of their life and a greater proportion of their conscious existence spent in limbo.
Various Judges dealing with applications relating to children and indeed those involved in managing the Court system generally have made it clear that parents need to use every available alternative to avoid going to Court.
So where should parents turn? In certain cases and where it is safe to do so alternatives to the Court system such as Mediation, Arbitration, and Collaborative Law perhaps including child psychologists as appropriate, can and should be explored leaving only the most intractable cases to be adjudicated upon by the Judges.”