Wait for care proceedings rises to 28 weeks
Cafcass CEO â€˜not surprised' at increase following rise in applications
The time taken for care proceedings to reach first disposal increased to 28 weeks in the first quarter of 2017, new figures have revealed.
Between January and March this year, care and supervision cases were, on average, two weeks outside the statutory limit of 26 weeks brought in three years ago and the highest quarterly figure since mid-2015 (29), according to the latest family court statistics from the Ministry of Justice.
The increase comes at a time when the number of disposals and applications continues to rise. There were 6,446 disposals recorded in the first three months of 2017 – the highest since 2013 – with just 56 per cent of these coming within the 26-week time limit, a 4 per cent drop year-on-year.
Meanwhile, between April 2016 and March 2017, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) received a total of 14,579 applications, a 14 per cent rise on the year before and 31 per cent higher than 2014-15.
Anthony Douglas, Cafcass chief executive, told Solicitors Journal: ‘The system has coped remarkably well but it’s not surprising to see an increase in duration follow such a marked increase in demand. The proportion of cases concluded within 26 weeks, which has remained relatively stable, is all the more significant against this backdrop.’
Overall the family courts saw year-on-year rises in Q1 in the number of public law cases (6 per cent) and applications (5 per cent). This is in addition to 11 per cent increases both in the number of private law cases and applications.
Jo Edwards, partner and head of family at Forsters, said: ‘These statistics echo the words of the president of the family division, Sir James Munby last year, in which he warned of a “crisis” in the care system, due to the “relentless” rise in the number of care cases over the past decade. Now we see an intensifying of that pressure with the significant increases in private law applications too.
‘The reality is that as the MoJ continues its drive to modernise by implementing court closures and moving more court work online, there is huge concern that if new systems are not tested before being implemented the system will grind to a halt and access to justice will be impeded.’
Cuts to legal aid have led to a rise in unrepresented parties, which has placed an additional burden on the family courts. Since Q1 2012, the proportion of private law disposals where neither party had legal representation has increased by 20 per cent to 34 per cent between January and March this year. In the same period, disposals where both litigants were represented fell from 41 per cent to 19 per cent.
Echoing calls made by the Law Society last week, Edwards said the government should look into whether LASPO’s cuts had created a false economy.
‘Through the additional burden on the court of those who pursue claims unrepresented, and the cost to the state of those who don’t, it is clear that there needs to be an urgent impact assessment of the legal aid cuts made four years ago to try to quantify whether there has really been any saving when taking into account these costs; and whether some limited funding for initial advice should be reintroduced.’
Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal