The president of the family division Sir Andrew McFarlane has this week warned that the problems of the crisis in the family courts were not going away and are getting worse. 

At an open meeting of the Family Justice Council held remotely this week the president, who chaired the meeting, observed that while some district family judges were coping well, others were struggling.

Mr Justice Williams told the meeting that the South East circuit had seen an increase of 44 per cent in applications to the court on the same period compared to last year.

One council member said this was largely attributable to cases of domestic violence, such as applications for injunctions, which had “gone through the roof”.

Williams J acknowledged that the family courts were in crisis because of the volume of work before the pandemic “and things were becoming a lot worse now”.

He said it was important that local authorities and parents should only come to court when absolutely necessary.

The challenge of how to clear the backlog of cases continues to exercise practitioners and the judiciary.

One factor is the continuing shortage of judges: Williams J told the meeting there are 70 vacancies for district judges on the South East circuit alone.

There were calls for changes to the Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting (MIAM) procedure given that MIAMs are not currently compulsory for both sides.

This means there are not enough of them taking place resulting in more court work – a situation that needs urgently to change.

Melanie Carew, head of legal at Cafcass, said Cafcass England is experiencing its busiest period ever, with July 2020 seeing 6,340 cases referred to it (the highest number it has ever recorded).

She added that the open cases levels for Cafcass and HM Courts and Tribunals Services are now larger than ever; were not at a safe level; and that covid-19 will not reduce the level of case numbers.

The Family Justice Board is due to meet on 10 November when it is expected to authorise the release of its paper on recovery and reform which will set out plans to deal with the family court backlog.

Tony Guise, director of DisputesEfiling and a campaigner for civil justice reform, attended the meeting and said he was “relieved” to learn that the board is shortly to publish its plans for tackling the ever-growing backlog.

But he added: “These must include the reform of MIAMs to become compulsory for both parties to enable the cases in the backlog to be diverted into ADR managed online and thereby overcome the rapidly rising backlog.”

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