Family court delays mean children are waiting a year or more to finalise living arrangements. Coodes Partner Sarah Evans, manager of our Family Law team, looks at the scale of the problem and what needs to be done…
The latest Ministry of Justice figures show that children involved in private law cases are waiting 47 weeks on average to find out who they will be living with long term. The statistics also show the number of new cases has overtaken the number of closed cases.
The figures paint a bleak picture, but this is the reality of the family court system at the moment. As a family lawyer with years of experience, I can tell you that the delays are the worst I have ever known.
So, what’s the problem?
The delays are down to a combination of factors. The first is one of availability of the people you need in place to make proceedings work. Judicial availability is one problem. In addition, there are considerable delays in securing availability of experts who provide reports and vital information in the family courts, such as actuaries (pension experts used in divorce proceedings) and psychologists.
The other major cause of delays is the increase in the number of cases where neither party has legal representation. This has gone up some 300 per cent since 2013, primarily because of changes to the legal aid system.
It makes proceedings much slower because without legal help, people often don’t know what to file, when to file it or, worse, they don’t turn up.
The delay that all of this causes is stressful and it means that families suffer in the long term.
More time can be beneficial
It is worth pointing out that, sometimes, delays can be beneficial. Some parents in care proceedings can use the time to demonstrate good enough parenting and make the most of the help on offer. On the whole, however, it is difficult for most families to move on with their lives when there are proceedings going on in the background.
What needs to be done?
There has been some funding granted to help with the backlog, including a government-backed voucher scheme to enable separating couples to attend mediation, but as far as I can tell, it has not improved matters a great deal so far.
The obvious solution is recruitment. We need more judges, more experts and more family lawyers, but that’s not going to happen overnight. In fact, the pool of family lawyers available appears to be diminishing. That means workloads are increasing – particularly over the past three years.
In addition, we do not have a functioning legal aid system. At the moment, the administrative burden of legal aid is phenomenal. If that was lessened, the delays would certainly be eased.
Early access to legal advice can also help avoid going to court in certain cases. Trying to agree a way forward without the need to go through the family court system would certainly help to ease the backlog to some extent.
No simple fix
There is no quick fix to the problem of delays in the family court system but change needs to happen. It might be that we never get back to a time when proceedings are dealt with within six months but the current situation is hugely concerning. As family lawyers, we all strongly believe in access to justice and maintain hope that the situation will improve for those needing to access the court system.
To talk to a member of our family law team, visit https://coodes.co.uk/department/family/