Backlogs and delays still plague family law court system
Children who could be placed in the care of their local authority are facing delays of almost a year for their cases to be started, according to the latest family court data.*
“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,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.
“The impact of delays continues to be felt, particularly in care proceedings. On average, care cases took 49 weeks in January to March 2022, up six weeks compared to the same quarter in 2021.
“We are also hearing of significant delays in private law children cases and the subsequent impact on children’s contact with their parents.
“HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has previously estimated that it may take three years to return to pre-pandemic levels, which is very worrying, particularly for cases that concern children and family matters.
“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.
“Members working in family law continue to report the high number of litigants in person (LiPs) – parties without representation. This is no surprise since cuts to legal aid have driven up the number of people who have no choice but to represent themselves through often highly stressful legal proceedings.
“But HMCTS still provides no data on litigants in person, which is essential for assessing the impact of legal aid cuts on individuals and the court system.
“The number of LiPs is not within the control of the courts, but having data on the scale of unrepresented people using the family courts would enable more efficient use of court capacity across the country.
“In most cases, LiPs require more time and support from the court time, which is likely to slow down the system and increase overall costs. Re-instating legal aid contracts would make a cost-effective contribution to resolving the backlogs in the family courts.
“Restoring early legal advice for family law cases would also mean fewer cases would go to court. Instead, solicitors could assist negotiated settlements, refer clients to mediation and better manage client expectations.
“The family courts are under immense pressure, and people with private law cases are experiencing unprecedented and unacceptable delays.”
Statistics for January to March 2022 show there were an estimated 68,134 new family law cases – down 6 per cent compared to the same period in 2021.
Meanwhile there were 30,154 divorce petitions filed – with divorce petitions and matrimonial cases down around 2 per cent, while domestic violence cases were down 2 per cent, compared to the same period last year.
“On 6 April, the family law system saw its biggest change in 50 years when ‘no-fault’ divorce came into effect. HMCTS statistics have already reflected a ‘bulge’ in cases as the new law came into effect**,” I. Stephanie Boyce added.
“A thorough investigation should be conducted on the effective operation of the courts, the increase in backlogs and the impact this is having on families having to represent themselves.”
Notes to editors
**There were 12,978 new divorce applications in April 2022. 10,207 of which were sole applications and 2,771 were joint applications. By comparison, there were 6,764 digital divorce applications and 1,965 paper applications in 2021.
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