Delays in children proceedings
It is a sad fact that many separating parents are unable to agree arrangements for their children, with the result that one or other of them has to apply to the Family Court for a child arrangements order.
But while a court order may provide a solution to the dispute, there will often be a price to pay, in the time that it takes the court to deal with the matter.
Delay is the scourge of children proceedings, often making a bad situation considerably worse.
A delay of, say, six months, which as we will see is not at all unusual, is a long time in the life of a child. Just having an unresolved parental dispute hanging over the child for so long can be extremely harmful.
And if no contact is taking place between the child and the parent pending the resolution of the proceedings, such a delay may cause irreparable damage to the child's relationship with that parent.
The law fully recognises the harm that can be caused to a child by delays in children proceedings.
In the very first section of the Children Act, the primary statute dealing with the law relating to children, the 'no-delay principle' is set out:
"In any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child."
But laudable though such a principle may be, the reality is that delay often occurs in children proceedings.
Worrying statistics for delays in children proceedings
And this is confirmed by the most recent Family Court statistics, for the quarter January to March 2022.
The statistics reveal that in that quarter it took on average of 46 weeks for children disputes between parents to reach a final order, i.e. case closure. This was up 7 weeks from the same period in 2021, and the highest value since 2014, when the quarterly Family Court statistics were first published.
In fact, the statistics show that the length of time that children cases have been taking has been increasing since 2016.
If the upward trend continues at present rate, it won't be long at all before the average reaches a year, and we could easily see an average of 66 weeks in a couple of years' time.
And it should be remembered that this is just an average – many cases obviously take considerably longer.
A glimpse of the future?
A glimpse of where we may be heading was provided by a European Court of Human Rights judgment that was published last week. The judgment concerned children proceedings in Serbia, but it is not difficult to imagine a similar scenario occurring in this country.
In the case the father was seeking contact with his son. He began court proceedings in March 2005, but the case was not finally dealt with by the court until February 2009. During those four years the court had only allowed the father limited contact with his son.
The father then took the Serbian authorities to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that his right to respect for his family life had been violated, due to the protracted length of the proceedings. This had prevented him from fully exercising his parental responsibility over his son, to include overnight and holiday contact, without relevant and sufficient reasons being given for limiting his contact rights throughout the proceedings.
The application was opposed by the Serbian authorities, but the European Court ruled in favour of the father.
The court found that the authorities had for several years failed to do everything in their power that could reasonably have been expected of them to take into consideration the legitimate interest of the father in developing and sustaining a bond with his child, and the son's own long-term interest to have a bond with his father.
The father was awarded four thousand euros damages, but no financial award can of course compensate for the damage to the father/son relationship, and the lost time that the father should have spent with his son.
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