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Cafcass research reveals that nearly a third of private family law cases have appeared in court at least once before

Posted: 06/12/2017

Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) is the independent body which represents children in family court cases. Its role is varied but part of its remit is to give advice to the family court and to help safeguard and promote the welfare of children who come into contact with the family court.

In November 2017, Cafcass published the results of its research into private family law cases that return to court. Private family law cases are those which typically do not involve a local authority ie they are cases bought by individuals wishing to involve the court to help resolve disputes in relation to arrangements for children.

The latest Cafcass research shows that of the 40,599 private law applications issued in 2016/17, 30% of cases were ‘return’ cases, meaning that at least one previous application had been made in respect of the eldest child. This research was carried out by Cafcass in an attempt to understand the reasons for there being a 20% rise in private law applications over the past two years.

The research found that the most common reason for a matter to return to court was that the case involved ‘conflicted adults’. The other ‘reasons’ were identified as falling into one of the following categories:

  • safeguarding concerns raised by the parties;
  • a change in life circumstances (eg changing schools); or
  • the child’s wishes and feelings.  

The report concluded that many of the ‘conflicted adult’ cases involved the same concerns that had been raised in previous proceedings and that while parties had ‘changed their behaviours to comply with the court-ordered arrangements, their attitudes towards the other party did not change; mistrust and hostility continued behind arrangements, making them fragile’. This research will be of particular interest to individuals when they are considering making an application to the court and evaluating whether this is the best route for them and their families. It may also encourage individuals and families to consider alternative forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation, to help create a plan and agreement for the future which has buy-in from all parties and which is therefore more likely to have longevity and require less intervention from the court in the future.

The research is also interesting when it is read in conjunction with Cafcass’ recent announcement that it will launch a special pilot scheme to address high parental conflict cases. These cases often involve an element of ‘parental alienation’. As Kate Molan, an associate in Penningtons Manches’ family team, recently explained in her article Children caught in the middle: parental alienation and implacably hostile parents, ‘parental alienation describes a situation where a child has been deliberately manipulated, coerced or otherwise pressured to align themselves to one parent by the other’.

From spring 2018, under the new initiative, Cafcass officers will receive guidelines known as the ‘high conflict pathway’ to help them recognise and manage cases where there is suspected parental alienation. Previously, these were dealt with on a case by case basis. The new guidance should result in greater consistency and recognition by the court of the serious and harmful effect parental alienation can have on a child. This is a welcome development for practitioners and families alike, many of whom have very different experiences of the court’s treatment of cases which involve parental alienation.

If you require assistance in deciding whether making an application to the court, or mediation or another non-court alternative are options for you and your family, or you are experiencing the effects of parental alienation, please contact one of Penningtons Manches’ family law specialists.

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