For many years now there have been warnings about the ever-increasing workload of the family courts, but now the situation has become so critical that it is being described as a ‘crisis’.
There are a number of factors driving the courts’ backlog. These include underfunding by the government, wholesale court closures, increasing numbers of applications to the courts, and more litigants in person, due to the unavailability of legal aid. On top of these came the pandemic, which severely restricted the number of cases the courts could deal with.
The latest warning was prompted by statistics released by HM Courts and Tribunals Service in November.
These showed that in August the family courts had over 110,000 open cases, up from 103,000 in September 2021.
Breaking the figures down, there were 85,706 private law family cases (i.e. cases not involving social services) open in August, up from 83,655 in September 2021, and there were 24,719 public family law cases (i.e. cases involving social services), up from 20,135 in September 2021.
And of course this increased caseload has an effect upon the time that the courts take to deal with cases. Private family law cases were taking an average of 43 weeks to deal with in August, and public law cases (which should be completed in 26 weeks) an average of 45 weeks.
Crippled by delays
The statistics have led to the Law Society saying that the family courts are “crippled by delays”, hampering the work of the courts and causing uncertainty for those involved.
Law Society President Lubna Shuja commented:
“Today’s data shows there is a backlog of more than 110,000 cases for the family courts, and cases are taking, on average, almost a year to complete.
“The ones who are impacted by this delay the most are families up and down the country. Some are dealing with deeply distressing issues – securing a child arrangement order, seeking protection from domestic abuse and controlling behaviour, or finalising a divorce.
“The UK government must ensure, so far as possible, that there are sufficient fee-paid and full-time judges to deal with existing and new caseloads.”
Backlogs ruining lives
And Resolution, the association of family justice professionals, is using its ‘Good Divorce Week (28th November to 2nd December) to highlight what it calls the “crisis in the family courts”, and to raise awareness of all the different ways families can resolve their disputes away from court, where it is safe and appropriate to do so.
Resolution has also gone further, by describing how the court backlogs are “ruining lives”.
A survey of Resolution members found that 20% said court delays caused clients to rely on benefits, 34% said they’d referred a client to a counsellor or therapist to help them cope with the stress of ongoing court delays, and 90% said court backlogs were causing additional and unnecessary stress and pressure for clients.
Resolution say that they have available case studies, including a London mum who talks about the impact of backlogs on her and her families’ mental health, and a Poole man who needed a divorce in order to remarry due to a cancer diagnosis but the paperwork did not come through in time for his planned wedding date.
Juliet Harvey, chair of Resolution said: “Under resourcing the family courts system is a false economy inflicting unnecessary pressure on the public purse and unconscionable stress on families at an already stressful time in their lives. A study of the impact of funding legal advice in Scotland found that, every £1 spent by government on legal aid in family cases saw a return of around £5 elsewhere.
“If the government were to focus more on encouraging early advice for separating couples and including information about all out of court options it could ease the pressure on family courts.”
Let us hope that the government is listening, and that it will do more both to provide the courts with the resources they require, and to reduce the numbers going to court to resolve their family disputes.