Over the last few months, trends in the family justice system and the wider public sector have become increasingly erratic. Private law applications are down by over 30% compared with a year ago. Applications for child maintenance are down by 40% since June, partly because of a new £20 charge to make an application. Mediation numbers are down by that sort of percentage as well, though recent data suggests a welcome higher take up. Applications to employment tribunals are down by 79% in the last year, since the introduction of charging and a more complex application procedure. And Placement Orders in public law cases are down by 40% in the last nine months, which will have an inevitable knock-on effect on the number of adoptions this year and next year. By way of contrast, July and September were records for those months for new care applications. Whilst there are several contributory explanations for each dramatic shift and whilst long-term underlying trends are less dramatic, it does suggest that some people are being deterred by charging, by the introduction of more complex online forms and processes, and by being unable to leap the new hurdles they have to pass before a service can be accessed.
Our role in Cafcass is to understand the impact on vulnerable children and young people of these changes. In public law, it is unlikely that local authority budgets will be able to prioritise looked after children to the extent they have been prioritised and protected, budget-wise, in the last five years. This signals a need to model local care systems on those local authorities who have low numbers in care and strong universal family support services coupled with a strong community child protection service based on high-trust risk sharing between statutory agencies. In private law, the lessons are less obvious as the lower number of court applications means we simply do not know what has happened to those families who were previously making applications to court and were supported to do so, rightly or wrongly, by lawyers. They are ‘the new disappeared’. Those that do make it through the gates are tending to be the determined, with some vexatious, so the pattern of service users is beginning to change. To some extent this is as it should be – courts reserved for those for whom there are no easy or apparent alternatives. But that is an untested assumption.
As well as spending more time understanding child impact, with individual cases and more generally, I anticipate we will spend more time in pre-court work, trying to deliver successful pre-court and pre-proceedings programmes through positive court diversion. Whilst the numbers disappearing from most types of court application are worrying, we should not forget that courts are usually the last place to resolve situations well and amicably and the only sustainable public services in ten years’ time are probably going to be low cost community alternatives based upon facilitated and supported self-managed care and solutions, with the threshold for a full state service being much higher than it is today.