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Family court backlogs climb to over 110,000 – why is this happening?

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It was reported in the Law Society Gazette on 11 November 2022 that the ‘government has been urged to ensure sufficient judicial capacity to deal with the family court backlog. The number of private law cases (such as deciding how much time a child will spend with their parents and where they will live) had increased to 85,706 as of the end of August 2022 with the average time to resolve a case at 43 weeks. Remember, that is the average and many cases take much longer causing distress to clients and impacting costs and, most importantly, creating uncertainty for the children involved.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has estimated it may take 3 years to return to pre-pandemic levels of service. Family lawyers have noticed the huge increase in Litigants in Person (LiP) many of whom have no choice but to represent themselves in highly stressful proceedings. The court does not keep data on the number of LiP’s but what we see is an increasing number of LiP’s both in children act cases, financial disputes etc.

Why are the delays?

  1. There is virtually no legal aid so there has been a huge increase in litigants in person (LiP). Inevitably this causes delays as LiP’s are not familiar with the legal system and they need more time and support. Reinstating legal aid, or support for LiP’s would cut delays and make the system run smoothly for all involved.
  2. There are not enough judges being trained and recruited to deal with the workload.
  3. Not everyone engaged positively with mediation and if mediation were used appropriately this would cut the number of cases in court.
  4. Not everyone thinks about the non-court based solutions available such as arbitration, collaborative law or round table discussions.

What is the day to day impact for clients?

  1. Calls the day before to say a court hearing is not going ahead because there is no judge available. Time and costs preparing the case is lost and more delays are created for families.
  2. Specialist reports in children act cases take longer to write due to a reduced number of social workers etc. This in turn impacts the time a case takes to be concluded.
  3. Court admin teams are stretched so if we lawyers have questions it can take over an hour to talk to someone on the phone, emails are not answered and, recently, Peterborough court has been telling us there is a 90+ day backlog in responding to applications and queries. 90+ day!

If you would like to discuss a family law issue please contact Elisabeth Sneade, Partner, and head of our family law team. Elisabeth is a collaborative lawyer and has over 20 years of experience. She routinely negotiates complex settlements at round-table meetings and has used arbitration many times.

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