Litigants in person, domestic abuse and Form E: The last week in family law

The House of Commons Library has published a briefing paper on the rise of the self-represented litigant in civil and family cases in England and Wales. The paper confirms that the proportion of litigants in person (‘LiPs’) appearing before the civil and family courts has increased since the reduction in the availability of legal aid in 2013. It also states that reliable data on LiPs are scarce and the National Audit Office (‘NAO’) has been critical of the limitations of the Ministry of Justice’s data, most of which concerns LiPs in the family courts. The NAO has reported a 22% increase in cases involving contact with children and a 30% increase across all family court cases (including those that remain eligible for civil legal aid) in which neither party had legal representation.

A major new campaign calling on the family courts and the Government “to put the safety of children back at the heart of all decisions made by the family court judiciary” has been launched by Women’s Aid, the national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. The ‘Child First’ campaign is accompanied by a new report, Nineteen Child Homicides, which tells the stories of the cases of nineteen children, all of whom were intentionally killed by a parent who was also a known perpetrator of domestic abuse. These killings, say Women’s Aid, were made possible through unsafe child contact arrangements, over half of which were ordered through the courts. Women’s Aid say that further avoidable child deaths must be prevented by putting children first in the family courts.

The Ministry of Justice has given an update on its investigation into a faulty online form used in divorce proceedings. Just prior to Christmas an error was identified in an online version of Form E, the form used to enable people to disclose financial information during divorce and similar proceedings. The error meant that the automatic calculator in the form calculated the wrong total for an individual’s net assets by failing to deduct certain liabilities. The investigation found that 3,638 cases contained the faulty calculator version of Form E with an incorrect figure for net assets figure in the summary table. Of that figure, 1,403 cases are still live, allowing the Courts Service to intervene immediately to clearly flag these cases to the courts, in order to avoid the error affecting the final orders in those cases. As to the remaining 2,235 files, the Courts Service has been instructed to write to all parties setting out what happened, apologising, and explaining that if people think they have been affected by the error then they can apply to the court to vary or set aside their order.

And finally, a High Court judge has ruled that a mother suspected of shaking her eight-month-old daughter, causing a head injury, may eventually be allowed to resume caring for the girl. Expert medical evidence as to the cause of the injury was inconclusive, with an accidental or unknown cause not ruled out, but Mr Justice Hayden found that the most likely explanation was that the mother had shaken her in a “momentary loss of control”. He found that the otherwise loving and dedicated mother was “plainly exhausted” after weeks of badly disrupted sleep, caring for the child with her partner working night shifts, while she herself had recently gone back to work after maternity leave. In the light of this, Mr Justice Hayden concluded that the local authority had been wrong to rule out the possibility of the girl, and her five-week-old sibling, ever being brought up by their parents.