The Ministry of Justice has published its latest statistics, both for the work of the family court and for activity in the legal aid system for England and Wales, for the quarter January to March 2022.

The statistics are one of the best guides to the state of the family justice system providing, amongst other things, the most up to date information on the number of new family cases started and disposed of by the court.

And the latest statistics reveal a worrying picture of record delays in the court dealing with cases.

In relation to the family justice system the main headlines revealed by the two sets of statistics are as follows.

Fewer new cases started

Starting with the good news, the statistics show that significantly fewer new cases were started in the quarter, which will obviously reduce the heavy workload of the courts.

The number of new cases (68,134) was down 6% on the same quarter in 2021. This reduction was due to decreases in most case types: financial remedy (18%), adoption (17%), private law children disputes between parents (9%) and divorce (2%) cases (although the divorce cases may have been down because people were waiting for the introduction of no-fault divorce in April).

There was, however, a 4% increase in public law children cases involving social services.

And there was also a 2% increase in domestic violence cases, although the number of applications for legal aid supported by evidence of domestic abuse was down 10% compared with the same quarter in the previous year. This latter figure may be simply reflect a return to 'normality' following the increase in domestic violence cases during the pandemic.

Fewer cases dealt with

But the news is less good when we look at the number of cases dealt with by the courts in the quarter.

There were 57,094 case disposals in January to March 2022, which was 12% down on the equivalent quarter in 2021. This was due to decreases in most case types, including adoption (28%), divorce (21%), public law children (16%), financial remedy (7%) and private law children (1%) cases.

However, there was a 9% increase in domestic violence case disposals.

The critical point here is of course that the number of case disposals was considerably lower than the number of cases stared, meaning that the system ended the quarter busier than it was at the start.

Children cases taking longer – court case delays

And so to the most worrying thing revealed by the statistics: record delays in dealing with children cases.

With regard to public law children cases, the average time for a care and supervision case to reach first disposal was 49 weeks in January to March 2022, which is up 6 weeks from the same quarter in 2021, and the highest average since 2012.

These cases should, of course, be disposed of within 26 weeks, but only 17% of care proceedings were dealt with within that time limit, which was down 5% from the same period last year, and the lowest recorded since 2012.

With regard to private law children cases (i.e. involving disputes between parents over arrangements for their children) the picture is even worse.

In January to March 2022, it took on average 46 weeks for these cases to reach a final order, i.e. case closure. This was up 7 weeks from the same period in 2021, and was the highest value since the current records began in 2011.

This continues the upward trend seen since the middle of 2016, where the number of new cases overtook the number of cases disposed.

These delays were of course exacerbated by lockdown during the pandemic, which seriously reduced the capacity of the courts to deal with cases. However, the problem was clearly getting worse long before the pandemic.

The Law Society has called for the government to ensure that there are sufficient judges to deal with existing and new caseloads. Let us hope that they do, because these court case delays will be having a serious adverse effect upon the children at the centre of these cases.

Originally Published 05 July 2022

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