Munby: ‘The system is facing a crisis, and we have no clear strategy’

The president of the High Court's family division warns of a looming crisis as caseloads for those working in care proceedings continue to rise

Photo: Garveskaya Elina/Fotolia

The head of the family courts has issued a dire warning about court, barrister and local authority ability to cope with rising numbers of care cases.

In a commentary about the family courts, published this week, Sir James Munby, president of the High Court’s family division, described the system as “at full stretch” and facing “a clear and imminent crisis”.

This warning followed another record month for care applications. In the past 10 years, the number of care applications going through the courts have doubled, and 2016-17 already looks to be another record year for case numbers.

“Everyone – everyone – is working as hard as they can,” Munby said.

“We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis.”

Caseloads rising

He said the “immediate” implications would be the need to continue struggling to cope with existing resources, as it was unlikely there would be an increase in funding. He added that the “very large” increase in care cases was also driving up the costs of legal aid.

He congratulated people working in the care system for first managing to drive down the time it takes to complete care proceedings and then holding time periods for cases steady in the past year, in the face of increasing demand.

“To keep the [time it takes to complete proceedings] level as the caseload increased by 14% is an astonishing achievement.”

However, he believed that achievement could not be maintained “as caseloads continue to rise”.


He said more research was needed urgently to identify the reasons for the rise in care cases. He said that, in principle, there were three possible causes: increasing amounts of abuse or neglect; local authorities becoming more adept at identifying abuse or neglect, or local authorities “lowering the threshold for intervention”, Munby said.

He said he didn’t believe abuse and neglect was rising enough to account for the rise in care applications, and so local authority behaviour “must be playing a significant role” in the rise of cases. This was supported by statistics showing a wide variation in the scale of the increases in cases in recent years. Munby said research was needed into changes in the breakdown of cases by types of abuse and in the profile of children or families, and also into the relative impact of short-term factors, such as specific judicial rulings in relation to section 20 of the Children Act.


On steps that could be taken immediately, Munby said there were too many documents that were “still too long”, local authority threshold statements needed to be shorter and there needed to be more scrutiny when applications for experts were being considered.

However, he said that basic principles of family justice – including the retention of the tandem model, in which the child is represented by a solicitor and a guardian – could not be compromised.

“This is going to be uncomfortable and difficult for all of us. I have said before but I repeat, because the point is so important, that I will never countenance any departure from the fundamentals,” Munby said.

The single, most important thing that could be done to tackle the crisis was a shift in the focus of the family courts towards tackling the causes of care cases, he added. He cited positively the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC), which seeks to use proceedings to help parents tackle substance misuse problems and thereby keep hold of their children, and Pause, which supports women at risk of repeat removals of children.

“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,” he concluded.



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4 Responses to Munby: ‘The system is facing a crisis, and we have no clear strategy’

  1. James September 20, 2016 at 6:43 pm #

    The clear message here is that research is required to understand the reasons for the rise. It seems that Mr Munby has already made his mind up and is pointing towards the local authorities ‘behaviour’ as the main factor driving this.

    This is evident in other articles where he has criticised local authorities without a clear understanding of the facts. This is a familiar story, criticised for not taking action, criticised for taking action.

    Local authorities certainly do not enter into proceedings on a ‘whim’ so I would argue the rise is caused by a number of other factors. Such as, better identification, overall practice becoming better and backlogs of cases that have drifted finally entering proceedings. There is also much tighter reign on section 20 arrangements and these cases entering the court arena.

    As social workers we are doing a great job and will continue to take action in the best interests of children. If the research identifies areas of improvement of course this will be welcomed. We must however be careful about making judgements and publicly criticising without clear and transparent evidence to back up these claims.

    The public perception of social work is already finely balanced, Mr Munby’s comments have only added to this.

    • ray September 25, 2016 at 5:57 pm #

      Double edged sword, if its better identification what sort of practice was going on previously, if its lowering of thresholds and presenting unbalanced views to court what sort of practice is going on currently??

  2. LongtimeSW September 21, 2016 at 1:03 pm #

    This goes to the heart of the British Constitution as it now exists – rightly, the Judiciary and the legislature are separate.

    However what is clear is that social care have to answer/respond to both.

    Resources or lack of them are not accepted by Courts as a reason not to comply with Legal obligations – in turn Government control of the purse strings for those resources take little or no account of the laws they promote and are passed.

    Yet again the focus is on perceived social care failings rather than the failings of social policy/legislation that is driven by finance rather than need – (allowing private organisations to disregard some aspects of statute in respect of Child Protection responsibilities is an example)

    Perhaps HH Judge Mumby can raise it in the Upper House of which he is a member I believe?

  3. Melinxc September 25, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    I’m not sure this is intended to be critical of LA’s, I certainly think it’s positive LA’s