Inside Northern Ireland's family courts

OUTDATED government policy on family breakdown and child custody has resulted in Northern Ireland “sleepwalking into a culture of litigation” with courts being used to “perpetuate family conflict”, the head of a leading charity has warned.

Director of Family Mediation NI Joan Davis was responding to Detail Data research that found almost half of all orders being made in Northern Ireland’s family courts are for ‘contact’ and ‘residence’ generally setting out which parent a child lives with and when they have contact with their other parent. The new findings have sparked calls for more use of mediation as an alternative to court action, while Detail Data has also gained rare access to family courts which has revealed the impact of proceedings on children.

Our examination of court data also uncovered errors in the Courts Service’s official Children Order statistics which record judges’ decisions affecting children’s lives and help frame planning. Figures covering a nine year period will now have to be amended.

Detail Data can today reveal more than 24,000 decisions impacting on thousands of children’s lives were made by judges over the last three years. We were also granted significant access to the family courts, which deal with sensitive issues, normally held in private, such as children being removed from their parents’ care and separated couples fighting over custody of their children. We obtained comprehensive statistics on family court rulings, known as Children Orders, made between September 2012 and August 2015 in response to Freedom of Information requests lodged with the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS).

An analysis of data from the Family Proceedings Court, Family Care Centre and High Court found that 10,206 contact and residence orders were made over the last three judicial years. Those orders can relate to more than one child.

Family Mediation NI, the largest provider of pre-court family mediation here, received government funding over the same period to assist 750 families reach agreement outside of the justice system.

Ms Davis said:

“The problem with the courts system is that it is being used to perpetuate family conflict inadvertently. It is an adversarial process by nature.The rest of Europe uses mediation as the default first option in family breakdown, and yet in Northern Ireland the default process is the courts system. in 2010 the Minister for Justice spoke about finding different ways of diverting parents away from the courts system. We are in 2016 and no additional money has come from any department.”

Ms Davis claimed that policy hasn’t kept pace with social change and the make-up of modern families with almost twice as many children (10,504) born to unmarried parents in 2014 compared to 1994 (5,337). The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency figures also show that the parents of 2,400 children (under the age of 18) divorced in 2013. She said:

“We urgently need policy makers to catch up with what's happening on the ground. The divorce figures don't give you the true picture because half of the people that come through these doors have never been legally married. We have an increase in casual relationships producing a child. We don't sit in judgment as to how this child came into the world but the law states under Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child that the child has the right to access to both parents.”

The Data

As a result of our research, errors in the Courts Service’s official Children Order statistics have come to light. The NICTS has initiated an immediate review of its data and said it will have to amend and republish figures covering a nine-year period. It has also confirmed to Detail Data that it is undertaking a consultation exercise and has proposed a new methodology of counting the number of Children Orders made by judges. NICTS provided us with an updated dataset, which it has said is accurate. It is those figures we are reporting on today.

The statistics relate to final orders, which are issued at the conclusion of court action. Each order can apply to more than one child (for example one order could relate to every child in a family). They cover both public law - involving individuals and the government such as a child being placed in the care of social services - and private law, which deals with relations between individuals such as couples unable to agree arrangements regarding their children following a relationship breakdown.

  • In 2013/14 private law Children Orders cost £11.7million.
  • Family Mediation NI receives just over £200,000 per year in government funding to facilitate pre-court mediation.
  • The Courts Service budget has been cut by £4.5million (10.8%) since April 2014.
  • The time taken to conclude private law cases has risen by more than a week to an average of six months. 22 cases took on average 16 months to conclude in one court.
  • Family courts located at 14 venues across Northern Ireland sat in total for almost 15,000 hours in 5,432 sittings between September 2012 and August 2015.
  • Up to 23,722 children were involved in concluded cases.
  • Judges granted applications for 870 care orders over the three years to protect children at risk of significant harm. During that timeframe more than 2,600 children were placed in care.
  • 20 orders for the recovery of a child were granted.
  • 60 secure accommodation orders were made.
  • Judges granted applications for 145 education supervision orders.

View Northern Ireland's Family Courts in a full screen map.

Mediation as an Alternative to Court

An appeal has also been made for the Executive - as the issue falls under the remit of three departments – health, justice and finance and personnel - to invest more money in mediation in an effort to encourage families to resolve their issues without court intervention. Family Mediation NI, which helps families and separating couples deal with disputes including drawing up a parenting agreement, has estimated that 70% of contact/residence disputes would benefit from mediated solutions. Charity Barnardo’s NI, which also provides pre-court mediation, wants to see a more constructive approach “to divert greater numbers of parents away from the courts”.

This story also examines the impact of cuts and public sector budgetary pressure. It also highlight the concerns about the length of time cases are taking to be resolved despite there being a no-delay principle enshrined in The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 because delay “is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child”. The Family Justice Review of civil and family justice in Northern Ireland including better ways of dealing with cases of relationship breakdown involving children is also examined in this story as part of this story.

To access the full Detail Data story, by data journalist Lindsay Fergus, visit here.

Case studies on families experiences of the current system can be found here and here.

To access the data supporting this story, click here.

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