Legal aid cuts prompt rise in child custody cases


According to new figures, there has been a dramatic late rise in child custody cases before the courts. Legal experts believe the spike is due to cuts in legal aid which came into force on 1 April 2013.

Child custody

The statistics, from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), show that 9,398 new private law cases were heard in May. Of this record number, some 9 out of 10 concerned parent-custody disputes.

The figure is 27% more than during the same period in 2012, when 7,388 cases were brought.

Changes to legal aid

Cafcass believes the cause may lie with the government's recent cuts to legal aid, giving rise to a situation that worries experts in child welfare. For such specialists, mediation between parents is more beneficial to the children than legal wrangling.

According to Cafcass CEO Anthony Douglas, the record rise implies that courts are still the "go-to solution" for parents involved in often bitter disputes following estrangement.

"Imposing decisions on adults in this way is never as good as mediation or a negotiated agreement, where it is safe to do so, and children usually end up suffering even more," Mr Douglas said. "All of us in the family justice system are working hard to steer families towards more constructive alternatives to court applications."

Cafcass working with families

Cafcass aims will continue talks with solicitors and other family law experts on what lies behind changes to application numbers.

Emma Pearmaine, Partner at Simpson Millar, spoke at the Family Courts Section Conference for Cafcass officers hosted by Napo, their trade union. She said: "It is clear that Cafcass officers on the front line are working so very hard to deliver their expert support and assistance to children and their parents but their hands are tied by bureaucracy and lack of resources. Cafcass is under increasing pressure from the rise in children applications made to court, and is not equipped to deal with it."

Benefits of mediation

However, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) believes the numbers of estranged couples resorting to the courts to resolve family disputes are in the minority.

"We'd be concerned if this began to rise long term," an NSPCC spokesperson said. "We feel that mediation sessions are effective for parents who need help to understand how to place the needs of their child, rather than their own feelings, at the forefront of any decisions about contact arrangements."

The spokesperson added that provided there are safeguards to make sure mediation sessions are not used for families where domestic violence or other abuse are present, "this has to be the best option for children".

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