In July 2021, new private law cases received by Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service) fell by over 16%. According to the latest figures published by Cafcass this week, they received a total of 3,774 new private law cases in July 2021, 740 cases (16.4%) fewer than in July 2020.

Private law cases generally consist of applications made to the family court by a parent or carer of a child following a divorce or separation. They are usually the result of a dispute between the parties with care of a child about the arrangements for the child/children, such as where the child/children are to live and/or with whom they are to spend time.

What does the drop in cases mean?

At the moment it is impossible to say what this fall in cases means, in terms of the bigger picture for the family court. Some may see it as an early indication that the family court may soon be relied upon less by parents/carers to resolve their family disputes. It is interesting to note that it is the steepest decrease in cases since April 2020, when Cafcass received a total of 2,550 new private law cases. This was 1,055 (29%) fewer than the same period in 2019. The decrease at that particular point in 2020 was undoubtedly due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread uncertainty felt by the majority of the nation at that time.

Whilst the timing of this most recent drop in cases is difficult to explain, the reason for it may become clear as future figures are released. Presently, however, the statistics for this year (April 2021 onwards) indicate that Cafcass and the family courts are on track to see more private cases than last year, as there is currently a higher recorded number of both cases and children within the court system than there was at this point last year.

This all ties in with the stark reality that since Cafcass have made this information available, there has been a continual increase in private law children cases year on year. The courts, authorities and legal professionals strive to maintain workable pathways so that people can navigate their way through the family justice system. However, the widely-held view is that this is a system in crisis. A recent Family Solutions Group report stated that the numbers of parents making applications are unmanageable and family courts are stretched beyond limits, with the number of cases (often about matters that should never have reached the doors of the court) growing exponentially.

During a reported court case earlier this year, HHJ Wildblood QC provided an insight into the current 'crisis' when he pointed out that, by January 2021, Bristol Family Court was dealing with double the number of outstanding private cases that they had in January 2020. The judge noted that within the past month, he had been required to micro-manage issues such as: at which junction of the M4 should a child be handed over for contact?; which parent should hold the children's passports (where there was no suggestion that either parent would detain the children outside the jurisdiction)?; and how contact should be arranged on a Sunday afternoon.

How we can help

The family team at Shoosmiths acknowledge that there are certain disputes about child arrangements when court applications are absolutely necessary. Court applications of this nature, however, should effectively be a last resort. At Shoosmiths, we recognise that the client in this situation is likely to be experiencing a time of vulnerability, anxiety, fear and so on. We can assist the client to explore the potential options open to them to resolve the dispute in the most effective manner possible, in an attempt to avoid the situation being recorded as yet another family court statistic.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.