Statistics, adoptions and no-fault divorce: The last week in family law

The widow of a Falklands war veteran has won a High Court bid to keep frozen embryos that they had created. Samantha Jefferies and her husband Clive had undergone two unsuccessful cycles of IVF on the NHS, and were about to undergo their third when Mr Jefferies died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 2014. Mrs Jefferies was then told the embryos must be destroyed because a two-year storage period had expired, despite the couple signing consent forms for 10 years’ storage and posthumous use of embryos. The case went before the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby in the High Court, who said that it was “obviously right” that they were stored for 10 years, as had been initially agreed.

The latest quarterly statistics for the Family Court, for the period April to June 2016, have been published by the Ministry of Justice. Amongst the key findings were that 66,328 cases started in family courts in England and Wales in that period, a 10% increase from the same quarter in 2015, that the number of public law cases started increased by 24% over the 12 months to June 2016, and that the number of private law cases started increased by 16% from the equivalent quarter in 2015. Other findings included that the average time for the disposal of divorce cases with financial remedy claims has been steadily increasing, from 20.5 weeks at the start of 2015 to 24.9 weeks in April to June 2016, and that the average time for the disposal of a care or supervision application made in April to June 2016 was 27 weeks, remaining steady over the previous year. A further finding was that neither the applicant nor respondent had legal representation in 34% of private law cases, an increase of 17% from April to June 2013.

The Ministry of Justice has also published legal aid statistics for the period April to June 2016. Amongst the key findings in relation to civil legal aid were that legal help new matter starts were 7% lower than in the same period of 2015, and that the number of civil representation certificates granted in the quarter was up 6% compared to the same period of the previous year. The statistics also included information regarding mediation, finding that the number of mediation assessments in the quarter was 12% down compared to the same period in 2015, and the number of mediation starts was down by 15% over the same period.

Further statistics, this time from the Department for Education, have shown that the number of children being adopted has fallen for the first time in more than four years. A total of 4,690 looked-after children were adopted in 2016, compared with 5,360 in 2015, a fall of 12 per cent. The fall was largely expected, due to a significant drop in the number of children being placed for adoption in recent years. The fall in adoption placements is widely believed to stem from a ruling made in September 2013 by Sir James Munby, in which he criticised the “sloppy practice” of social workers and said that local authorities must provide evidence that all alternatives to adoption had been considered before bringing a case to court. The statistics also showed that the number of looked-after children is continuing to rise, having increased steadily over the last eight years. There were 70,440 looked-after children as of 31st March 2016, an increase of 1 per cent compared with 31st March 2015.

And finally, the House of Commons Library has published a briefing paper on the issue of no-fault divorce. The paper, which can be found here, considers the current basis for divorce, looks at the attempt to introduce no-fault divorce via the Family Law Act 1996, discusses the arguments for and against the introduction of no-fault divorce, and also looks at other recent developments related to divorce. In 2015, Richard Bacon MP introduced a ten minute rule Bill which aimed to allow no-fault divorce, but the Bill did not proceed any further. Advocates of no-fault divorce speak of reducing the conflict which can be caused by allegations of fault. In some cases, the assertion of fault is considered to be a “charade”. Arguments against the introduction of no-fault divorce include that the institution of marriage should be supported; the risk of the divorce rate increasing if it is perceived to be easier to get a divorce; and the negative impact of family breakdown.