Mixed messages from latest Family Court statistics
Mixed messages from latest Family Court statistics
The Ministry of Justice has published its latest statistics for cases dealt with by the Family Courts, for the quarter October to December 2020, and the messages sent by the statistics are somewhat mixed.
The statistics show an increase in the number of cases started in the Family Courts, at least during the quarter.
In that period 68,634 new cases were started in Family Courts, which was up 6% on the same quarter in 2019. This, we are told, was due to increases in most case types: domestic violence (21%), financial remedy (8%), matrimonial (i.e. divorce – 5%) and private law children (3%) cases. However, there was a decrease in public law children (3%) case starts.
Annually, however, the figures are very similar to those in 2019. In 2020 there were 264,091 new cases started in Family Courts throughout 2020, compared to 266,059 in 2019.
As indicated, the biggest increase was in domestic violence (abuse) cases, confirming the fears by many that lockdown during the pandemic has led to an increase in domestic abuse, due to couples being forced to remain under the same roof.
The number of domestic violence remedy order applications increased by 19% compared to the equivalent quarter in 2019, while the number of orders made increased by 20% over the same period. There were 35,984 applications and 39,427 orders made throughout 2020, up 20% and up 17% respectively from 2019.
Divorces taking longer
The statistics also paint a mixed picture when it comes to the time for divorce cases to be dealt with.
The quarterly statistics show an increase in the average time for divorce proceedings, but the annual statistics actually show a decrease.
The mean average time from the divorce petition to decree nisi was 30 weeks, and to decree absolute was 56 weeks – up 2 weeks and 4 weeks respectively when compared to the equivalent quarter in 2019. The median time to decree nisi and decree absolute was 20 and 39 weeks respectively.
However, throughout 2020 the mean time from petition to decree nisi was 28 weeks and 53 weeks to decree absolute, each down 3 weeks respectively.
Care proceedings also taking longer
On average, care proceedings took longer, with fewer disposals within the 26 week time limit during which care cases should be concluded.
The average time for such cases to reach first disposal was 41 weeks in October to December 2020, up 8 weeks from the same quarter in 2019. 27% of cases were disposed of within 26 weeks – down 13 percentage points compared to the same period in 2019.
And in this instance the annual figures are just as bad. The average time to first disposal throughout 2020 was 38 weeks, up 5 weeks from 2019. 31% of cases were disposed of within 26 weeks, down 10 percentage points from 2019.
Care proceedings are now taking the longest time since mid-2013 – very bad news, especially of course for the children involved.
On the subject of case duration, the statistics tell us that cases with legal representation take longer on average. For example, private law children cases where both parties are represented took a mean duration of 24.6 weeks during the quarter, compared to just 18.2 weeks where only the applicant was legally represented.
However, these figures should not necessarily be considered to be an indication that legal representation is a bad thing. On the contrary, they could suggest that respondents to these applications may not be having their cases prepared properly, without legal representation.
Generally, the figures for legal representation continue to paint a very concerning picture about the effect of the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters in April 2013.
In October to December 2020, the proportion of disposals where neither the applicant nor respondent had legal representation was 38%, increasing by 24 percentage points since January to March 2013, and down 1 percentage point from October to December 2019.
Correspondingly, the proportion of cases where both parties had legal representation went from 41% in January to March 2013 to 21% in October to December 2020, up 1 percentage point compared to the same period in 2019.
For 2020 as a whole, neither the applicant nor the respondent were represented in 38% of cases, whilst both had legal representation in 25% of cases. These were up and down 2 percentage points respectively compared to 2019.
The change seen in the pattern of legal representation is also demonstrated in private law cases, with at least one hearing where the proportion of parties with legal representation stood at 59% in 2012, compared to just 35% in 2020.
A statistician commented on the figures:
“The impact of Covid-19 continues to be seen across family court activity this quarter, with noticeable recovery as work levels return to pre-lockdown levels (seen in the number of new cases started and disposed across most areas since the first lockdown period). The negative impacts on timeliness measures continue, with work progressing to address the impact to the family justice system.”
They went on:
“It may be some time until improvements as a result of recovery measures taken begin to show, particularly relating to timeliness measures as outstanding cases are dealt with. Nightingale courts continue to be used to help cope with demand and help the court system to run as effectively and safely as possible during the coronavirus outbreak.”
Let us hope that we do not have to wait too long for these improvements.