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Increase in children applications

View profile for Karen Johnson
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Increase in children applications

The term “private law children matters” is used to describe disputes involving private individuals (usually parents) regarding children. The issues in dispute might include:

  • where children shall live
  • how much time children should spend with each parent 
  • what name children should be known by 
  • what school children should go to
  • issues such as a parent wishing to take the children out of the jurisdiction, or  
  • surrounding the consent to a child’s medical treatment

The law of England and Wales recognises and encourages parental autonomy to make decisions regarding children. It only steps in where there is concern that a guardian’s actions are placing that child at risk of significant harm.

Primarily the responsibility for decision making rests with those with parental responsibility. However, regardless of the legal implication of parental responsibility, it is really important to remember that the ability to challenge and seek resolution of disputes regarding children is not based on parental responsibility alone. There is a presumption that it is in a child’s best interest to spend regular and consistent time with both parents so long as it is safe.

In an ideal world it is clearly better for a child to have those responsible and who care for them able to reach agreements rather than to be surrounded by dispute and uncertainty. Parents and children may also be happier with an agreed outcome than one which is enforced upon them. Communication is key but can be very difficult in the height of emotion that comes with relationship breakdown.

There is a wide range of help and support available to parents struggling to reach an agreement. Options such as mediation and solicitor negotiation allow parents to retain autonomy over the decisions concerning their child. Family therapy or counselling can help to address the underlying emotions which can sometimes be a barrier to agreement. If an agreement is not possible then parties can agree to engage an arbitrator to make a decision or, alternatively, either can make an application to the court.

38% increase in private children applications

Recent figures published by Cafcass show that in March 2021, applications received by them were up 38% on the same period last year. These figures are a good indication of demand on the courts because all private law children applications are referred to Cafcass.  Such an increase, if taken at face value, is alarming. 

However, further consideration of the historical figures show that applications in March 2020 were lower than previous years and so perhaps reflective of the country being placed into lockdown. That said, even allowing for a statistical blip, there is still a trend of increasing applications being made to the court and this is of concern.

Some cases absolutely need to be considered by the courts but I would consider that for the vast majority, court should be a last resort. It is expensive and slow and this has not been helped by the pandemic. Delay is considered prejudicial to a child’s best interests. 

We have a Child Arrangements Programme which provides that the first hearing should be heard by the court usually between 5 to 6 weeks of the application being issued. However, we are regularly coming across situations where hearings are listed months away. The courts are working, and have worked, extremely hard throughout the pandemic to keep the justice system moving but it is going to take time to improve the current delays.

There may be many reasons for the increasing applications. It might reflect a proportionate increase in separating parents, an increase in disputes because of the pandemic or a lack of engagement or awareness of out of court options. 

A further reason may also, paradoxically, reflect the court delays. I have seen an increase in applications being made to the court whilst negotiations and mediation are ongoing as a fall back should those negotiations break down. However, increased applications means increased pressure on an already overwhelmed court system.

Our family law solicitors are able to provide advice in relation to a wide range of family and divorce issues including arrangements for children. We will help you secure the best outcome for you and your children. We offer a free initial no obligation chat to consider how we can help you and I can be contacted on 01206 217305 or emailed at karen.johnson@birkettlong.co.uk.

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