The Ministry of Justice has published what it is calling ‘experimental statistics’ showing family law cases are concluded more quickly when neither party is represented in court.
The MoJ has published its statistics in order to paint a picture which addresses the known evidence gap in relation to hearing duration.
The figures compare the average hearing duration for cases starting between April 2012 and March 2013 which were disposed of within 12 weeks and cases starting between April 2013 and March 2014 which were disposed of within 12 weeks.
The initial findings showed no change in overall average (mean) hearing durations, but also showed some evidence that hearings where both parties were represented have increased in duration while hearings where neither party were represented have decreased in duration.
The figures also show that over the same period directions hearings have increased in average (mean) duration across most representation types, while full hearings have decreased in average (mean) duration, particularly when neither parties were represented.
They also suggest there has been a substantial decrease in the average number of hearings per case, although this does appear to be part of a longer term trend, it’s noted.
The findings, however, appear to contradict the findings of family law organisation Resolution.
The association of family lawyers says the findings, which are based on average rather than actual hearing times, directly contradict the experiences of its members who work in the family courts.
A recent survey among Resolution lawyers showed how almost 70 per cent said when they act in proceedings where the other party is unrepresented family court resources have to be diverted to aid that party – lengthening hearings.
The survey also showed how 80 per cent of respondents said legal costs of the represented party increase when one or more litigants in person are involved in a case.
Questions have been raised, however, about the legitimacy of the statistics released. The published figures aren’t actual court hearing duration times, but represent estimated durations.
The figures are drawn from two computer systems; the Family man system, which judges use to record an estimate for how long a case will take to hear, often before they know whether either party has representation or not, and the eDiary, a scheduling tool used by listings officers to allocate cases. Neither is comprehensive or designed to produce reliable statistical data.
Regardless of whether the figures represent a legitimate fall in duration time or not, one of The Family Law Company’s Exeter Solicitors, Vanessa Priddis, says such a decrease may not be a good thing.
“Whilst it is pleasant to note that the survey says hearings may be taking less court time this is not my experience,” she said. “The survey fails to deal with how many of these cases return to court as the parties felt pressurised to rush things – did the outcomes of the case really deal with the issues or was it a ‘sticking plaster’.
“Also there seems to be no clear evidence as to whether the court users felt they received a fair hearing.
“Time taken can be no real indicator of success – only outcomes for children can be – less haste may in fact mean better outcomes and less likelihood of the cases coming back to the court or do we just want a conveyor type family justice system?”