Cafcass figures, legal aid and pets: The last week in family law

Cafcass has published its latest figures for care applications and private law demand, for June 2014. In that month Cafcass received a total of 866 care applications, representing a 2% increase compared to those received in June 2013. As to private law demand, Cafcass received a total of 2,651 new private law cases, which is a 37% decrease on June 2013 levels, continuing to reflect the effect of the abolition of legal aid in April 2013.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has published its preliminary findings from a survey conducted to assess the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’), which brought in the cuts to legal aid. The survey was undertaken to look at the effects of the legislation on access to justice and on the legal profession one year on from LASPO coming into effect. A total of 716 people responded to the survey, of which nearly 90% were barristers. Of the respondents who worked in the family courts 80% reported an increase in court delays since the implementation of LASPO and 88% reported an increase in self-representation. The findings also revealed that 61% of all respondents noted an increase in the number of lay clients saying they had difficulty accessing legal advice and representation.

Meanwhile, and on a similar note, official figures obtained by The Independent show that the number of parents forced to represent themselves before the family courts jumped by 20,000 last year, following the abolition of legal aid for almost all family cases. The increase means that for the first time more than half of parents – 58 per cent – went into court without a lawyer representing them in 2013/14. In the previous year, before legal aid changes came in, just 43 per cent of parents before the family courts were not represented by lawyers. The Government argued that cutting legal aid to family law would mean parents solved their disputes through mediation rather than battling in court. However, the new figures show that there was actually an annual increase in the number of parents resorting to the courts for child contact and residence disputes after legal aid was withdrawn for most private family law issues in April 2013.

A senior family court judge has criticised social workers’ handling of children’s cases, claiming there is “an increased pressure to intervene” in the wake of the Baby P tragedy. Justice Sir Mark Hedley made the comments to ITV in a new documentary about so-called ‘forced adoption’. In Exposure: Don’t Take My Child, screened on the 15th of July, the former High Court judge said: “There is a highly defensive atmosphere around, both in social services and in the state generally about future disasters like that happening again. That has meant, I think, that there is increased regulation, there is an increased pressure on social workers to intervene where they might not have done so in the past.” He also added that “there is often a failure to think through the implications of adoption as opposed for example to long-term fostering or to trying to find a special guardian amongst the members of the family”.

And finally, a law lecturer has suggested that a new approach to resolving pet custody disputes on relationship breakdown be adopted. Debbie Rook of Northumbria Law School has written an article on the subject in which she advocates that the courts apply a ‘best interests of the animal’ test rather than, as at present, simply treating the pet as another type of property.