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Family courts face ‘crisis’ amid rise in care cases

‘A radical rebalancing of the very functions and purpose of the family courts is needed,’ says Munby

21 September 2016

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The family court is facing a ‘clear and immediate crisis’ as it struggles to cope with the rise in care cases, the president of the family division has said.

In his latest View, Sir James Munby said the court was’ ill-prepared’ for a crisis and that ‘no clear strategy’ existed to manage it.

Official figures show that for the first five months of the year (April to August), there were 6,219 cases – an increase of almost 23 per cent on the figure of 5,059 for the same period last year.

Further, the 12,781 cases saw in 2015/16 was 14 per cent higher than the previous year. The number of cases between 2009/10 and 2014/15 had risen by 26 per cent – from 8,832 to 11,159.

The president partly attributed the increases to the behaviour of local authorities, which have either become more adept at identifying child abuse or neglect, or have lowered the threshold for intervention.

Munby P pointed out that the figures had to be evaluated in the light of population and other demographic changes and trends.

On a brighter note, however, the president said that the duration of care cases had fallen ‘month by month’ since the recommendations in the Family Justice Review were implemented in 2011. He also praised the consistent numbers over the last year despite the rising caseload as an ‘astonishing achievement’ but, nonetheless, urged future caution.Pro

‘I hope I turn out to be wrong, but I do not believe that this level of achievement can be maintained as caseloads continue to rise,’ said Munby.

‘The fact is that, on the ground, the system is – the people who make the system work are – at full stretch. We cannot, and I have for some time now been making clear that I will not, ask people to work harder. Everyone – everyone – is working as hard as they can.’

In addition, Munby outlined that there was unlikely to be ‘any increase in resources, judicial or otherwise’ while the dramatic increases in the number of cases were ‘driving up very significantly the cost of legal aid’. Emphasis was once again placed on the need for more research to understand the increases and to find a solution.

Looking ahead, he reiterated his desire for piloting and rolling out settlement conferences but also highlighted some of the changes he would like to see in the more immediate future.

Munby will be imposing page limits for certain categories of documents and favours the need to shorten local authority threshold statements. He also wants to ensure the effectiveness of child management hearings and issues resolution hearings.

In calling for ‘a radical rebalancing of the very functions and purpose of the family courts’, he stressed the need for the family court to become more of a problem solving court and praised the ‘vital work’ done by the family drug and alcohol court.

A project called Pause, which focuses on addressing the underlying problems women face from losing successive children in repeat care proceedings, was also commended.

‘There must be no slowing down, no pulling back,’ Munby said. ‘FDAC, Pause, and similar projects are, at present, the best hope, indeed, in truth, the only hope, we have of bringing the system, the ever increasing numbers of care cases, under control.’

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal

@sportslawmatt matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk

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Family Children Courts & Judiciary

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Munby Care proceedings child abuse Problem solving courts family court