Biased advice, Family Court and Cafcass statistics: The last week in family law

Vulnerable people representing themselves in court are being
given biased and misinformed advice by online legal advisors, new research has
found. A study carried out by Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, Senior Lecturer in English
Language at Birmingham City University and Professor Hilary Sommerlad, Leeds
Law School, assessed the quality of advice handed out by advisors on online
forums and social media platforms. It found that online advisors often
delivered biased advice and suggestions reflecting personal anti-court and
anti-social services viewpoints. The research took in the advice handed out on
170 Facebook threads by 30 different McKenzie Friends – litigation friends who
help advise those representing themselves in court on a voluntary or paid
basis. It showed instances of McKenzie Friends advising parents to ignore the
advice of lawyers, suggesting courts were institutionally unfair and in some
instances advising people to act against the advice of their lawyers while
promoting the services of McKenzie Friends. Words used to describe Family
Courts and social services include ‘gender-biased’ and ‘disgrace,’ while social
services are also accused of not delivering, asking ‘stupid’ questions and
being incompetent. Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, Senior Lecturer in English Literature
at Birmingham City University, said: “While there are many positive
experiences, the unregulated environment online means that our research found
several instances of worrying, biased and misleading advice. The negative
portrayals of the courts and social services, alongside the advice to ignore
specialised legal advice show a worrying trend towards personal viewpoints and
agendas clouding impartial and objective support. To help protect the many
vulnerable people in these cases, we need to see a move towards a more
regulated environment with increased transparency to make sure that people know
the information they are accessing and the legal qualifications of those advising
them.”

The Ministry of Justice has published quarterly statistics
on the work of the Family Court, for July to September 2019. The statistics
showed an increase in the number of cases starting and an increase in number of
cases disposed of in the family courts. In July to September 2019, 67,431 new
cases started in family courts, up 1% on the equivalent quarter in 2018. This
was due to a 23% rise in domestic violence cases started, along with increases
in private law children (5%) and public law children (1%) case starts. However,
there were decreases in new adoption (8%), matrimonial (3%) and financial
remedy (1%) case starts compared to the same period last year. There were
62,197 case disposals in July to September 2019, up 20% on the equivalent quarter
of 2018. This was due to increases in matrimonial (38%), domestic violence
(33%), and private law (10%) cases reaching a final disposal, while there were
decreases in adoption, public law (both 3%) and financial remedy (1%) case
disposals. The statistics also showed a decrease in the number of divorce
petitions and in the average time of divorce proceedings, while the number of
decree absolutes increased. Divorce petitions were down by 3% in July to
September 2019 compared to the same period in the previous year. Decree
absolutes granted were up 38% in July to September 2019 compared to the same
period in the previous year, and the average time from petition to decree nisi
decreased to 30 weeks in July to September 2019, from 31 weeks in the same
quarter of 2018.

And finally, the Children and Family Court Advisory and
Support Service (‘Cafcass’), the organisation that looks after the interests of
children involved in family proceedings, has published its latest figures for
public law applications and private law demand, for November 2019. In that
month the service received a total of 1,095 new care applications, 107 fewer
than in the same month last year. Cafcass received 12,395 new public law cases
between April 2019 and November 2019 featuring 19,959 children; this represents
a decrease of 1.6% (207 public law cases) and a decrease of 4.6% (964
children). As to private law demand, Cafcass received a total of 4,051 new
private law cases in November, 34 more than the same month last year. Cafcass
received 31,293 new private law cases from April to November 2019, which is
1,750 cases (5.9%) more than the same period in 2018. These cases involved
46,830 children, which is 1,844 (4.1%) more children than April to November
2018.