Cafcass figures, divorce forms and maintenance: The last week in family law

The latest figures for care applications and private law demand, for July 2017, have been published by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’), the organisation that represents children in family court cases. In that month the service received a total of 1,238 care applications, which is a 5% decrease compared with those received in July 2016. As to private law demand, Cafcass received a total of 3,709 new private law cases, which is a 10% increase on July 2016 levels.

Following on from this, new analysis by the Local Government Association (‘LGA’), which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, reveals that in 2015/16 councils surpassed their children’s social care budgets by £605 million in order to protect children at immediate risk of harm. The LGA says that councils have faced an unprecedented surge in demand for children’s social care support over recent years, which is showing little sign of abating. More than 170,000 children were subject to child protection enquiries in 2015/16, compared to 71,800 in 2005/06 – a 140 per cent increase in just 10 years. The number of children on child protection plans increased by almost 24,000 over the same period, while ongoing cuts to local authority budgets are forcing many areas to make extremely difficult decisions about how to allocate increasingly scarce resources. The LGA is warning that the pressures facing children’s services are rapidly becoming unsustainable, with a £2 billion funding gap expected by 2020. They say that unless urgent action is taken to reduce the number of families relying on the children’s social care system for support, this gap will continue to grow.

The Ministry of Justice has published a report on prison reform, by Lord Michael Farmer. The report calls family relationships “the golden thread” to help reduce reoffending. It says that research shows prisoners who receive visits from a family member are 39 per cent less likely to reoffend, and that close ties between prisoners and key family members can significantly reduce the risk of reoffending – which costs society £15 billion every year. Lord Farmer said: “My report is not sentimental about prisoners’ families, as if they can, simply by their presence, alchemise a disposition to commit crime into one that is law abiding. However, I do want to hammer home a very simple principle of reform that needs to be a golden thread running through the prison system and the agencies that surround it. That principle is that relationships are fundamentally important if people are to change.” The Ministry of Justice has already started developing a strategy which will take forward recommendations from the review.

Lawyers are warning that a new ‘do it yourself’ divorce form could lead to more adultery accusations. They say that the new form invites people to ‘name and shame’ adulterers, and that this could add unnecessary conflict and complexity to divorces. The form, which was designed to be easier to complete by those without a lawyer, includes a box where details of the name and address of the person with whom the respondent can be inserted. Margaret Heathcote, vice-chairwoman of Resolution, the association of family lawyers, said: “Generally speaking, we don’t name the third party. It increases the conflict from day one. There’s no need. But because the box is there, the indication will be to fill it in.” The Ministry of Justice has responded to the criticism by saying that there was “no obligation” to name people.

And finally, the Supreme Court is to consider the proper approach to applications to vary maintenance orders. In the case, Mills v Mills, the parties were divorced in 2002. Their financial claims were settled by a consent order which, amongst other things, provided the wife with a capital sum and required the husband to make maintenance payments to the wife of £1,199 pcm. In 2014 the husband applied to discharge the maintenance order or, in the alternative, for a downward adjustment. His case was that the wife (i) had lost the capital she had been awarded in 2002 through gross financial mismanagement and (ii) was in a position to work more in order to increase her earnings. The wife sought an upward variation of the maintenance, on the basis that she was unable to meet her basic needs. The judge held that the order should continue without any variation. The Court of Appeal allowed the wife’s appeal, and ordered that the maintenance be increased to £1,441. The Supreme Court has granted the husband permission to appeal on the single ground: whether, provision having already been made for the wife’s housing costs in the capital settlement, the Court of Appeal erred in taking these into account when raising her maintenance. A hearing will be scheduled in due course.