Research suggests separated parents in deprived areas more likely to use family courts

Research suggests separated parents in deprived areas more likely to use family courtsdivorce conversation with children

As we all know, the distribution of wealth in England is not evenly spread. Many areas of the country are poorer than others, and that certainly applies to parts of the ‘catchment area’ of Ian Walker Family Law and Mediation Solicitors.

And that uneven distribution of wealth can have a serious effect upon the work of the family court, as illustrated by a recent report prepared by The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (‘NFJO’), which carries out research with the aim of improving the family justice system.

It has long been recognised that there is a link between deprivation and ‘public law’ children cases (i.e. cases involving local authorities, in particular care proceedings), but the report indicates that there is also a link between deprivation and ‘private law’ children cases, involving disputes between parents over arrangements for their children. And more than twice as many private law applications are started in England and Wales each year than public law ones.

 

Main findings

child and parent in meeting with solicitor

Father and toddler daughter in therapist office during counselling assessment meeting.

The data in the report is based on administrative data collected routinely by Cafcass, the organisation that represents children’s best interests in family justice proceedings in England. The report uses population-level data on all private law applications made to the family court in England between April 2007 and March 2020, together with Office for National Statistics family estimates and indices of deprivation from the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government.

The report shows that private law children cases in England disproportionally involve people living in deprived areas. In 2019/20, 30 per cent of applicants lived in the most deprived 20 per cent of the wider population, whereas just 13 per cent lived in areas in the least deprived 20 per cent.

The report also reveals that parents’ need for assistance from the family courts varies by region. In 2019/20, private law application rates in the northern regions ranged between 79 and 81 per 10,000 families with dependent children, but were just 44 per 10,000 in London and 59 per 10,000 in the South East. The rate in the South West was also high, at about 75 per cent.

In addition there is some evidence of a ‘justice gap’ following the abolition of legal aid for most private law cases in 2013. From 2013/14 onwards there was a reduction in the proportion of applications brought by people living in the most deprived areas, by younger applicants, and involving a child under five.

 

Recommendationsdivorce, two people gap between

The NFJO make a number of recommendations following these findings.

They say: “It is critical that policy makers consider the role of deprivation as a factor in private law cases and its interaction with other factors such as conflict, domestic abuse and other child protection issues. This will be an important step in informing, and possibly reshaping, the response to private law need in both the court and out-of-court context.”

They also say that the regional variations are “not insignificant”, and this requires greater evaluation of the provision, uptake and effectiveness of mediation and other support services, and other possible drivers of these differences, including local-level deprivation.

As to the evidence of a justice gap following the legal aid reforms, they suggest that the Ministry of Justice reviews this evidence, alongside other research and analysis, to reflect on whether access to justice is being inhibited and what steps can be taken to address this.

Lisa Harker, director of the NFJO, said:

“Parental disputes taking place within the family courts are sometimes perceived and portrayed as fairly trivial arguments that could perhaps be settled out of court. However, these findings suggest that families who come before the court are likely to have unmet needs, related to levels of deprivation and where they live.

“It is widely recognised that cases brought to court by local authorities disproportionately involve families from more deprived areas, and this study firmly establishes a similar link in cases triggered by parents who have separated. With tens of thousands of children being involved in these cases every year – some of whom will be particularly vulnerable – it is vital that we recognise that deprivation is a factor and begin to consider how to reduce the pressures on families in order to decrease the risk of family conflict.”

Clearly, this report requires serious consideration, by policy makers, the courts, and others involved in the family justice system and in the provision of assistance for the most deprived in our society. We need to think about why exactly the most deprived have a greater need for the family courts, and what more can be done to help them, including enabling them to have early access to legal advice, which may reduce the need for them to go to court.

You can find the full report here.

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