Cafcass has been hit with a major rise in referrals of private family law cases, such as contact and residence arrangements when parents separate, at a time when it is already dealing with a surge in care applications following the baby Peter case.
The family courts body received 4,163 private law referrals in June, up nearly 30% on 12 months earlier and the highest monthly figure it has reported since recording began in April 2006.
The figure dropped slightly to 4,138 in July, but this was still 16% higher than in July 2008.
Cafcass received more than 15,000 referrals in the four months from April to July 2009, up 16.5% on the same period last year.
June’s private law record completes an unfortunate double that has stretched Cafcass’s resources this year. In March, after publicity over the baby Peter case, it reported the highest-ever monthly number of applications for care orders, 739 – up 37.5% on March 2008.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said yesterday that the private law increase could be linked to the recession, with relationships under stress and some people finding it easier to access legal aid funding if they have lost their jobs.
Cafcass family court advisers become involved in private law cases when parents who are separating or divorcing are unable to agree on arrangements for their children. They act as child and family reporters, or as guardians ad litem in Rule 9.5 cases if separate representation of the rights and interests of the child is required.
Although Cafcass has revealed the increasing pressures it faces from private law referrals, Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCS) does not have figures for the total number of family law applications for the period in question.
A spokesperson for HMCS would not comment when asked whether the increase in referrals to Cafcass was having a knock-on effect on the courts.
“We work very closely with Cafcass to ensure that all private law cases are progressed as quickly as possible and in the best interests of the child,” he said.
Cafcass report delays
Elspeth Thomson, co-chair of the children committee at Resolution, which represents family lawyers, had not seen any increase in family law cases in north east England, where she is a partner at Newcastle-based David Gray Solicitors.
However, she said courts faced delays of four to five months in private law cases in receiving reports from Cafcass practitioners. Attempts to “clear the backlog” in care cases could leave fewer practitioners available to work on private law.
Thomson said lawyers continued to encourage clients in private law cases to resolve their differences without going to court.
“Anything that diverts people from the court process is great for the family and for children,” she said.