Children left in limbo by family courts crisis

Tens of thousands of children are being left in limbo by a crisis in the family court system as a result of care proceedings and parental separation cases taking more than a year to resolve, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.

Data from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) shows children who have been removed from their parents by the state are having to wait an average of 46 weeks* to get a final decision on where they will live.

Worryingly, in 13 out of the 42 designated family judge areas in England and Wales, the wait is double the recommended government target of 26 weeks.

The worst hit areas for public law delays in Q4 2022-2023** were:

  • east London – 60 weeks
  • Norwich – 60 weeks
  • west London – 58 weeks
  • Wolverhampton/ Telford – 58 weeks

Cafcass currently has 31,961 open children’s cases, with 52,276 individual children affected.**

Children involved in private family law cases who are waiting for decisions on living arrangements after their parents have separated also face similar delays.

There are currently more than 80,000 children caught up in private family law proceedings, according to court statistics. In 2022, the case duration in private family law was 44.9 weeks. ***

“What is often missed in the debate around the unacceptable backlogs in our family courts is the impact on children. They are suffering the very real consequences of months and sometimes years of uncertainty about their future, preventing them from having the stability they need to thrive,” said Law Society president Lubna Shuja.

“Our members are telling us of instances where court delays are leading to increased tension between parties. This is undermining a collaborative and child-centred approach to family separation.”

Cris McCurley, a member of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee, said: “The entire family courts system is creaking after years of austerity cuts and neglect.

“As a practitioner it is heartbreaking to have to deal with the consequences of this and I worry about the effect on children, some of whom have not seen their primary carer parent for more than three years. There needs to be investment in the system, now.”

Jenny Beck KC (Hon), a member of the Law Society’s Family Law Committee, said: “Many of the options available in private family law cases need not involve the courts. However, without advice from a solicitor many parents turn to litigation, which inevitably increases conflict and has overwhelmed the courts, resulting in harmful delay.”

The Law Society is calling on the government to restore early legal advice in family law cases to help parents better understand their rights and their options for resolving issues involving children.

Lubna Shuja concluded: “The government is focused on introducing mandatory mediation in family cases as the way to solve the backlogs in the courts, but mediation is not always appropriate.

"Early legal advice means separating couples can get the guidance they need to identify the solution that works for them – solicitors can assist in negotiating settlements or refer them to mediation where appropriate.”

Notes to editors

*Data taken from Cafcass (May 2023). Read the statistics in full here. England and Wales is divided into geographical areas which are managed and led by the designated family judge (DFG). A DFG is responsible for providing leadership to the family judiciary within a group of courts or court centre.

**The recommended minimum timescale for public law family cases to be resolved is 26 weeks. Only Worcester hit this target in Q4.

***Figures taken from the Ministry of Justice’s Family Court Statistics Quarterly – January to March 2023. Tables 5, 8 and 9.

MoJ, Family Court Statistics Quarterly – January to March 2023. 29 June 2023, Tables 5, 8 and 9.

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