UK – Record number of care cases puts courts under strain

Record numbers of care cases are putting ‘intense’ pressure on the family justice system, according to the head of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

Figures from HM Courts and Tribunals Service show that the number of care and supervision cases before the family courts has increased from around 12,000 at the start of 2009 to more than 20,000 in March 2011.

In addition, Cafcass statistics reveal the highest-ever numbers of care applications.

During 2010/11 there were a total of 9,180 care applications, up 4% on the 8,826 in 2009/10, which itself was a 36% increase on the previous year.

Care applications for all months during 2010/11 have been the highest ever recorded by Cafcass for individual months, except June and December 2010.

Between April and July 2011, Cafcass received 3,212 new applications, 7% higher than the number received in the same period last year.

While March 2011 saw the highest number of care applications recorded in a single month, with 892 applications.

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: ‘Record numbers of care applications show that thresholds for intervention have shifted and that local authorities are ensuring that more vulnerable children are getting the protection they need from a spectrum of poor and sometimes catastrophic parenting.

‘However, the pressure is intense and affecting all parts of the family justice system, including the courts.’

Christina Blacklaws, Law Society Council member for child care, said the high number of applications was unsurprising, following a dip in cases after the introduction of the public law outline in April 2010, which set out a protocol for the management of public law cases.

She said: ‘Sadly, child abuse continues and all agencies are better trained to spot it. However, our family justice system is struggling to deal with the level of work.’

Blacklaws added that delays in cases being dealt with by the courts are ‘shameful’ with even relatively straightforward ones taking on average a year to resolve, due in part to cutbacks at HMCTS.

‘The family justice system is in meltdown, but government is ploughing on with its savage programme of cuts regardless,’ she added.

David Emmerson, family law consultant at Dagenham firm Milner Elledge, said one of the reasons for the increase was the fallout from the Baby P case.

‘Before the case there had been a drop in the number of applications, with an inevitable increase afterwards. Those cases are now coming through the system into the courts,’ he said.

Emmerson predicted that the increased trend in the number of cases would continue, which would put greater pressure on social services and Cafcass, calling into question the proposed cuts to those services.

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