CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) have recently published their private law data for August 2020 (which can be viewed online here). This records the amount of new cases started at Court in respect of private children disputes, which broadly speaking covers any dispute between those with care of a child, for example disputes as to child arrangements, schooling and relocation (both domestic and international). The data shows a slight increase in private law children applications as against August 2019.
Placed in the wider context, this shows a continuing trend of increased activity in the Courts in respect of private children disputes. In April and May 2020 there was a decline in this kind of application (almost certainly as a result of COVID-19) but in June, July and now August, there has been an increase in the number of applications made as against the previous year. Looking more widely, cases of this type have increased by over 5,000 per year in the past four years.
This is concerning in circumstances where, even prior to COVID-19, the Court system is drastically overstretched. Fellow practitioners will no doubt be aware of the delays in private children cases as the Courts (rightly) prioritise children cases involving the local authority and cases involving domestic abuse. However, in practice, this means lengthy delays for other children cases and a therefore continuation of the status quo for the child in question. Inevitably this favours one parent over the other and in some circumstances can be harmful for the children involved (for example, where one parent is refusing contact with the other parent or has unilaterally relocated with the child to a different part of the country).
One benefit of COVID-19 has been the increased awareness of and willingness to engage in forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution, such as mediation and arbitration (and the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has stressed the importance of this in the guidance he published in June, “The Road Ahead”). Of course some firms, including Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, were already well accustomed to using these forms of ADR to achieve a swift result for parents (and their children). It is hoped that in the current circumstances the increased uptake of ADR will continue so as to mitigate the negative effects of the Court’s backlog on parents, and more importantly, their children. For more information about ADR in the context of family law, please click here.
At a time when it is clear that the court will struggle to cope with the volume of cases in a restricted working environment, it is all the more important that parties, legal advisers and the judiciary should have express regard to all forms of non-court dispute resolution […] including mediation, conciliation or arbitration.