Family Court Crisis Leaves Children in Limbo
Tens of Thousands of Children Left in Limbo
Tens of thousands of children are being left in limbo because of a crisis in the family court system. Care proceedings and parental separation cases are taking more than a year to resolve. Data from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafass) reveals that children who have been removed from their parents by the state are having to wait an average of 46 weeks to get a financial decision on where they will live.
As a result of the delays, children are left suffering with no certainty about where they will be living. In some cases, children are having to wait years to hear where they will be living. Not only is this causing distress to children but can create further tension between parties. Many solicitors are stressing that the family court crisis is going against the child first approach that is to be upheld in the family courts.
What is the Current Time Frame for Applications Related to Children
The statutory time frame for local authorities who are submitting protection applications relating to children, is 26 weeks. This time frame was introduced in 2014 after major concerns that delays were impacting all those involved, especially often vulnerable children.
After the 26-week time frame was introduced, an effort was many by professionals involved to reduce the delay. By 2016 the national average time for a care case was halved to 27 weeks.
Why is There a Family Court Crisis?
However, since 2016 delays have begun to escalate again, largely due to a rise in these types of applications followed by the pandemic.
Although the family court were still operational over the pandemic, quicky adapting to video style hearings, there was still a large backlog of cases.
In addition to the pandemic, societal issues often attribute to a rise in family court cases. Often families can have complex problems such as mental health issues, substance and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, poverty, or cases where parents have suffered also from neglect. As society changes, especially with the recent financial crisis and coming out of a pandemic, societal issues can become more complex resulting in further applications to the family court.
Furthermore, professionals working with families such as social workers are under increasing pressure. Social work is a high-pressure job and retention is becoming an increasing issue. Having a social worker leave can impact deadlines where assessment may have been ordered by the court. As a result, they may not be able to be filed on time.
Cuts to Support Funding
Resources and funding to support families is no longer as widely available as before. In addition, many services that support families, domestic abuse organisations or mental health services are struggling to meet demand and therefore are less able to offer essential support to help families in need. Furthermore, there is a shortage of specialist placements for children who may be a risk to themselves of others, further increasing the length of proceedings.
Private law children dispute between separating or separated parents will also have been heavily affected by the pandemic. Parents may not be able to get the representation they once could as legal aid and without the financial help, they cannot access legal representation. Currently, legal aid is only available where someone has provided evidence of child abuse or domestic abuse and they are eligible depending on the probable success of their case and by considering their income capital. The absence of adequate representation unquestionably contributes to delays, as solicitors play a crucial role in guiding their clients toward alternative solutions to avoid court proceedings. When litigation becomes inevitable, legal representatives are invaluable in helping clients focus on pertinent evidence and statements, a task considerably more challenging for those without prior courtroom experience.
How Delays are Impacting Children and Families
The Children Act states that these types of applications are likely to prejudice the child’s welfare. Therefore, the Children Act makes it clear that a child’s welfare should be the primary consideration.
Delays in the public law proceedings can result in children spending longer in interim placement such as foster care. The distress caused by delays will be different depending on the child. Young children may be confused about what is happening while older children who understand more may be left distressed about what is happening. It’s vital during these developmental years that children have a sense of stability where they feel secure. The longer it takes for proceedings, the more difficult it can be to place a child.
Furthermore, children involved in public law proceedings are likely to come from turbulent homes and therefore are more likely to suffer from mental health difficulties. This makes the child even more vulnerable to the distress that comes with delays, potentially furthering the severity of their mental health difficulties.
In private law proceedings, especially when the court needs to determine the child’s place of residence, it is crucial for this decision to be accelerated. A quick resolution helps provide a sense of permanence for the child or children involved, preventing them from enduring prolonged uncertainty.
In cases involving allegations of domestic abuse, particularly when such allegations are contested, the court may need to assess whether the abuse occurred and how it impacts the child’s contact with the accused parent. The longer it takes to reach a decision in such cases, the more likely it is to heighten the anxiety of individuals who may need to provide evidence regarding the suffering they may have endured.
Plans to Tackle to Family Court Crisis
Regarding public law proceedings, there is a significant pressure from senior judiciary to streamline the process and adhere to the 26-week timeframe. All parties involved, including judges, local authorities, solicitors, barristers, social workers, and guardians appointed to represent the children, are being urged to make cases more focused, minimise hearings, and address core issues early on to reduce backlogs.
The courts acknowledge the need to better address the needs of children and parents involved in family disputes. However, this is a challenging task. Some cases involve complexities like mental health issues, substance misuse, domestic abuse, or entrenched conflicts between parents. Parents are encouraged to consider the family court as a last resort and understand that resolving their issues outside of court is in everyone’s best interest. While some parents may threaten to initiate family court proceedings, they should be aware that it is not a platform for airing complaints and grievances against the other parent.
Unless it’s an emergency or there are concerns about domestic abuse, parents are typically required to attempt mediation first. The courts aim to reinforce this requirement. Additionally, pilot programs in North Wales and Dorset are focusing on engaging with separated parents in conflict to resolve disputes for the benefit of their children through a holistic, multi-agency approach. These pilots gather evidence before proceedings begin and prioritize the protection of domestic abuse victims.
Furthermore, the Law Society is advocating for the restoration of early legal advice in family law cases by the government to help parents better understand their rights and options when dealing with issues involving their children.
Seeking Legal Advice for Your Family Law Case
Navigating the well-being of children in the aftermath of a relationship breakdown or a family crisis can feel overwhelming. Our team of expert Children Law Solicitors is here to assist any family member, be it a parent, grandparent, guardian, another relative, or friend, as they grapple with decisions regarding the future of a minor. Our unwavering commitment is to achieve the best possible outcome for both you and your family.
At Cartwright King, our specialised Children’s Law professionals collaborate closely with you to determine what is in the best interests of children who find themselves entangled in the midst of a divorce or a family crisis that impacts their welfare. We go to great lengths to ensure that the right resolution is reached, all while placing fairness and equity at the core of our Children’s Law team’s mission.
All advice is correct at time of publication.