Family law court system still facing backlogs and delays

Statistics for October to December 2021 show there were an estimated 58,762 new family law cases – down 17% compared to the same period in 2020.

Meanwhile there were 22,683 divorce petitions filed* – with divorce petitions and matrimonial cases down around 25%, while domestic violence cases were down 5% compared to last year.

Yet the Office for National Statistics found there were 845,734 domestic-abuse related violence instances in the year ending March 2021, a 6% increase compared to the same period in 2020.**

“We have voiced our concern about the significant backlogs in the family courts – which pre-date the pandemic. The existing problems have been compounded in the last two years,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.

“The impact on timeliness also continues to be felt, particularly in delays to care proceedings. On average, care cases took 47 weeks to reach first disposal in October to December 2021, up five weeks compared to the same quarter in 2020.

“Delays can themselves cause significant harm as well as uncertainty for the parties involved.

“It has previously been estimated by the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) that it may take three years to return to pre-pandemic levels, which is a great cause for concern, particularly for cases that concern children and family matter.

“From the outset, we’ve said the UK government must maximise existing court capacity, boosting it through Nightingale courts to allow more in-person hearings to take place safely.

“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.

“There is also no mention of data on litigants in person (LiPs) – parties without representation – in the latest statistics.

“Members working in family law continue to report about the high number of LiPs in the court system.

“In most cases, LiPs are unable to afford representation and have no choice but to represent themselves. This impacts court time and resources, and makes the provision of representation under legal aid contracts a cost-effective solution to the backlogs.

“It would also enable the most efficient use of court capacity across the country. Although this is not within the control of the courts, it is a key concern that should continue to be raised by the sector.

“The family law system is seeing its biggest change in 50 years on 6 April, when so-called ‘no fault’ divorce comes into effect.

“We will be monitoring closely to see if there is a spike in the number of cases in future statistical reports and will feed this back to our members.”

Notes to editors

* Family court statistics quarterly: October to December 2021

** Read the Office for National Statistics report

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