There was a continued creeping up of how long divorce is taking - for those granted decree nisi, the average time from petition to decree nisi and decree absolute were each up 5 weeks to 29 weeks and 54 weeks respectively, the highest figures so far for the periods covered by the bulletin.
There is clear evidence of cases taking longer – public law (care) cases have gone up by 2 weeks year on year, to 30 weeks, despite the 26 week rule introduced in 2014. Only 49% of cases were disposed of within 26 weeks, a decrease of 8% year on year.
“The latest Family Court quarterly statistics (for the period October to December 2018, and therefore completing the stats for 2018) show some worrying trends becoming embedded into people’s day to day experience of the family justice system. Although courts modernisation, and the move to online divorce and increasing digitisation, are welcome, the reality is that those changes will take time and in the meantime the effect of the swathes of court closures and other cuts in the MoJ budget, coupled with the huge rise in the number of applications year on year and the continued growth in the number of unrepresented litigants, mean that the family courts continue to buckle under the weight of pressure and are at absolute breaking point.
On every single measure – number of applications being issued/needing determination, the amount of time divorces and other private law applications are taking to be disposed of, the failure to meet the 26 week rule in the majority of public law cases, the huge swathes of litigants in person in the system – it feels as though the court system is failing. That is not for want of effort on the part of those who work in the family justice system, but due to chronic underfunding, the impact of court closures before the courts modernisation programme has caught up and the impact of the legal aid cuts 6 years on. It is also interesting to reflect 5 years on upon the effect of the huge swathe of changes which were introduced in the family justice system in April 2014 – including the coming into being of the single family court, new child arrangements orders (meant to reduce litigation by abolishing ‘residence’ and ‘contact’), the 26 week rule in care cases, the statutory MIAM (intended to divert more cases away from court but not having that effect), and see what more can be done.
Unfortunately, there is a perfect storm of factors which is leading the family court ever closer to the brink. The long-awaited impact assessment of the legal aid cuts has failed to deliver much which will be tangible benefit to family cases, and the courts modernisation programme has recently been extended. All the while, too many are left having to represent themselves; or get to court to find that no judge is available to hear their case following all the cuts. Although the move to privatised justice has helped those who can afford to pay to have a private judge, the many thousands of other families passing through the family courts each year who are unable to resolve their issues are entitled to know that a judge will be available to determine their case swiftly and having heard all the facts.”