Children removed from parents by state left in limbo for average of 46 weeks

In 13 out of the 42 designated family judge areas in England and Wales, the wait is double the recommended Government target of 26 weeks.

Tens of thousands of children are being left in limbo as a result of care proceedings and parental separation cases taking more than a year to resolve, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.

Children who have been removed from their parents by the state are having to wait an average of 46 weeks to get a final decision on where they will live, data from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) shows.

And in 13 out of the 42 designated family judge areas in England and Wales, the wait is double the recommended Government target of 26 weeks.

The worst-hit areas for public law delays in Q4 2022/2023 were East London and Norwich at 60 weeks and West London and Wolverhampton/Telford at 58 weeks.

Cafcass currently has 31,961 open children’s cases, with 52,276 individual children affected.

Meanwhile, children involved in private family law cases who are waiting for decisions on living arrangements after their parents have separated also face similar delays, the Law Society added.

There are currently more than 80,000 children caught up in private family law proceedings, according to court statistics.

In 2022, the case duration in private family law was 44.9 weeks, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice’s family court statistics from January to March 2023.

Law Society president Lubna Shuja said: “What is often missed in the debate around the unacceptable backlogs in our family courts is the impact on children.

“They are suffering the very real consequences of months and sometimes years of uncertainty about their future, preventing them from having the stability they need to thrive.

“Our members are telling us of instances where court delays are leading to increased tension between parties. This is undermining a collaborative and child-centred approach to family separation.”

Cris McCurley, a member of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee, said: “The entire family courts system is creaking after years of austerity cuts and neglect.

“As a practitioner it is heartbreaking to have to deal with the consequences of this and I worry about the effect on children, some of whom have not seen their primary carer parent for more than three years. There needs to be investment in the system, now.”

Jenny Beck KC, a member of the Law Society’s Family Law Committee, said: “Many of the options available in private family law cases need not involve the courts. However, without advice from a solicitor many parents turn to litigation, which inevitably increases conflict and has overwhelmed the courts, resulting in harmful delay.”

The Law Society is calling on the Government to restore early legal advice in family law cases to help parents better understand their rights and their options for resolving issues involving children.

Ms Shuja added: “The Government is focused on introducing mandatory mediation in family cases as the way to solve the backlogs in the courts, but mediation is not always appropriate.

“Early legal advice means separating couples can get the guidance they need to identify the solution that works for them – solicitors can assist in negotiating settlements or refer them to mediation where appropriate.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We want to support family disputes to be resolved as effectively and quickly as possible and where appropriate to avoid the stress and conflict of the courtroom.

“That is why we have been taking decisive action to improve waiting times in the family courts, with over 3,000 more private law cases reaching conclusion in 2022 than in 2017, and are investing £24 million in our landmark mediation scheme to prevent disputing parents from needing to go to court in the first place – while also investing millions in early legal support for those who do need to see a judge.”

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