by Jo Edwards, Partner and Head of Family at Forsters LLP
The latest Family Court quarterly statistics highlight that although on the face of it there was not much change in the number of cases being issued in family courts in 2017, the numbers are to a significant degree 'massaged' by the decrease in divorce petitions being issued. However, that does not change the fact that there remains significant pressure on the family courts, both with public law (e.g. care) cases but increasingly also with private law applications for orders relating to (particularly) child arrangements or money. The proportion of disposals in private law cases where neither party had legal representation was 37%, the highest on record. Couple this with the general increase in the number of applications in private law cases in the recent past, and what one sees is a clogging up of the system by those without representation who, with access to even a little publicly funded legal advice at the outset, may have been signposted into mediation or given information that would have helped them settle their case. There are also, of course, the unknown numbers who (without legal aid) simply give up and do not pursue money claims or rights to see their children. Through the additional burden on the court of those who pursue claims unrepresented, and the cost to the state of those who don’t, it is clear that there needs to be an urgent impact assessment of the legal aid cuts made 5 years ago to try to quantify whether there has really been any saving when taking into account these costs, and whether some limited funding for initial advice should be reintroduced.
Other worrying indicators include the gradual increase in the length of time taken to resolve public law/care cases, and the length of time to resolve private law children cases, i.e. arrangements for how much time a child is to spend with each parent after a separation. In both instances, the profound impact upon children of delay in the system is immeasurable.