Charity responds to ‘worrying increase’ in time it takes for Family Courts to deal with child matters

A leading national mediation charity has responded to the latest data from The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which has shown a ‘worrying increase’ in the time it takes for the Court to deal with child matters.

The latest 2021 Family Court Statistics shows that 58,762 new cases started in Family courts between October to December 2021.

While that reflects a decrease of 17% on the same quarter in 2020, the data also shows that the average time taken from application to case closure has increased in 2021 to 42 weeks – up 7 weeks from 2020 – showing a continuous increase since 2016 and taking double the time it took just four years ago.  

According to the data, there was a total of 9,795 Public and Private law (Children Act) orders specifically relating to the assignment of parental responsibilities, as well as post separation support and dispute resolution made in Family courts in England and Wales in 2021.

More than 16,000 children were involved in the cases, which is an increase of more than 1500 on the previous year.

Commenting on the figures Jane Robey, the CEO of National Family Mediation (NFM), a charity which helps families to sort arrangements for children following a separation or divorce, said the increase in the time it takes to get a Court result, and the combination of new applications and failure to close cases, is causing undue delay to many families who are waiting for the Court to help them settle their disputes.

She said: “Enough is enough. This data shows us that things were bad pre-pandemic, and things are clearly getting much, much worse.

“We’re not talking about divorce cases here. We’re talking about matters relating to children. Really important stuff like where they are going to live now that their parents have separated, and whether they can have contact with both mum and dad, or even grandparents.

“Imagine waiting the best part of a year before you can see your children because the system that families rely on is full to bursting and can’t fit you in.

“Families need to be able to access the support they need to have these difficult conversations outside of the Courts, and the Government needs to step up to make sure that happens!

“The family courts are reaching breaking point and if we don’t act soon, we are going to find ourselves in a situation where parents and children suffer immeasurable damage, putting inevitable strain on the wider social and health services network.”

Jane said that the Government needs to do more to promote the alternatives that are available to families in need of dispute resolution support, including legal aid and the Mediation Voucher Scheme.

She added: “There are much better ways of dealing with conflict within families than going to court, and yes of course I am championing mediation here. Not simply because it takes the fight out of the courts, but because it is proven to be far more effective, far quicker, far less stressful, and far more cost effective.

“Legal aid is available for family mediation which means if eligible it’s free and in addition the Government has stepped in to provide up to £500 for families to attend mediation to discuss child matters.

“Thankfully, we have just received news from the Government that the voucher scheme, which has been in place for a year now, and has helped around 7000 families, has been further extended for six months. That’s great news.

“The data shows that it is working, with 77% being able to reach agreement about their parenting arrangements now they have separated.

“This further extension suggests that the government is beginning to recognise the value of helping parents to help themselves, and it means many more families can have access to NFM family mediation services without the worry of additional costs and are assured of an outcome within weeks not months if not years.”

Jane explains that the major benefits of family mediation, is that both parties have the chance to reach an agreement that works for all.

She adds: “A Court order is imposed on all and, in our experience, often suits no one. Once you have started Court proceedings you really are in their hands as to what will come next.

“In mediation, the children can be included and have a say in what they want for the future, it’s a place where parents can safely test ideas for future arrangements without fear of discussions being used against them at a later date and all that can be achieved in a very short timescale

“Courts by definition invite litigation and that encourages parents to fight. That increases conflict and as everyone knows and understands the impact of protracted conflict makes for very unhappy children who carry the scars of their parents battle into adulthood and beyond.

“There is no doubt that the government needs a longer-term strategy, as parental separation and divorce is not a new phenomenon. Nor are the outcomes of badly managed divorce or separation on the children involved.

“The voucher scheme is a small but very welcome step to making alternatives to court available to parents at what is one of the most difficult periods in any family’s life. By making available the £500 voucher the government has helped to remove a barrier to access to family mediation and many more families are experiencing the benefits as a result.”