Litigants in person swamping family courts

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Jun 30, 2017
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In more than a third of disputes in the first quarter of this year both parties acted without lawyers

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Family courts are struggling under the pressure of a growing number of disputes over children and finances, a third of which involve litigants acting without lawyers, figures published yesterday show.

The rise in workload is also seeing mounting delays in cases involving the future of children at risk of abuse who may be taken into care, which now take up to 28 weeks, the highest level since mid-2015, despite the 26-week limit on such cases set three years ago by Sir James Munby, England and Wales’s most senior family judge.

The figures for the family courts in England and Wales for the first quarter of this year show that, in all, 65,714 cases were started in the family courts in that period, up by 4 per cent year on year. Disputes involving arrangements for the residence of children and access accounted for 13,281 applications and involved 28,043 children, while those involving money made up 12,185 applications, the biggest number for four years.

Some 34 per cent of cases involved unrepresented litigants on both sides, a rise of 20 per cent since legal aid cuts made four years ago. Only 19 per cent of cases involved lawyers on both sides.

Jo Edwards, partner at law firm Forsters, said that the latest figures echoed Sir James’s comments, “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”. Edwards added: “Now we see an intensifying of that pressure with the significant increases in private law applications too. The reality is that as the Ministry of Justice 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.”

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