Child court delays

Partner Michael Gregory has written for The Times on how the government can ease lengthy child court wait times by promoting mediation.

Michael’s article was published in The Times, 7 September, and can be read here.

Recent Family Court statistics have reported there are currently over 80,000 children involved in private family law proceedings in England & Wales. These are proceedings where a court looks to address crucial, personal issues for a child like where they will live, how much time they will spend with a parent, and even which school they attend when their parents have separated. There is an approximate 12-month waiting time for a decision to be made through the court system in these types of cases, showing not only the sheer volume of cases being dealt with by a court system that is at breaking point, but also the thousands of children and their families across England & Wales whose lives are adversely impacted waiting for these decisions to be made.

For many families, court proceedings are inevitably the only way to address a dispute with regards to a child’s future welfare. For many more however, if alternative means to address these types of disputes, such as mediation, were made more publicly aware to families from the outset, then a decrease in these kinds of disputes being caught up in protracted, adversarial court proceedings would be the most likely outcome.

Back in March 2021, the government introduced the mediation voucher scheme in an attempt to encourage more families to engage in mediation, affording a one-off contribution of up to £500 towards a qualifying family’s costs. This was initially in response to the pandemic to support the recovery of the family courts and encourage more families to consider resolving their disputes outside the formal court process. But how many families going through a dispute are aware of this scheme, and moreover, how many understand the enormous benefits associated with mediation in the first place? As family lawyers, while we seek to educate parents about their options and explore the potential benefits of mediation, we would certainly welcome the government playing its part in promoting alternative dispute resolution in family cases.

If we are to reduce the number of children involved in lengthy, emotional proceedings and in doing so relieve the burden on a buckling court system, the government surely needs to be more involved in actively campaigning to promote mediation as the most appropriate forum for many families that are going through a dispute. If the government were to dedicate resources to raising awareness of the availability of these alternatives through TV campaigns, social media and other methods of advertising to the public, this would have a great impact. This, in tandem with subsidised training packages for lawyers being made available to encourage more to train as mediators, would greatly help to resolve a real injustice at the heart of the family courts system.