Separated parents in Wales family courts more likely to live in deprived areas

Parents in Wales who turn to the family courts to resolve private disputes over child arrangements following family separation are more likely to live in deprived areas, new research has shown.

The highest rates of court order applications come from people living in Swansea and South West Wales.

The ‘Uncovering private family law: Who’s coming to court in Wales?‘ report, published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and undertaken by a collaboration including researchers from Lancaster University, reveals for the first time that many separating parents needing support from the family justice system are likely to be economically vulnerable.

In 2018, 29 per cent of fathers and 33 per cent of mothers making a private law application in Wales lived in the most deprived areas.

When separated parents cannot agree where their child or children should live, or who they should have contact with, they can apply for a court order to settle the dispute through a family court.

Tens of thousands of children are involved in these disputes each year. More than twice as many private applications are started in England and Wales each year than public law applications – where a local authority intervenes to protect a child at risk of harm – (54,930 private applications vs 18,393 public in 2019) yet little is known about the families who bring private cases to court.

The study uncovered a shift in the types of orders being applied for, indicating a rise in more difficult or contentious cases.

Applications for a child arrangement order (CAOs) – which deal with where children live and who they have contact with, commonly referred to as custody and access – are by far the most common.

However, applications for enforcement (to enforce a CAO), prohibited steps (to forbid a particular action, such as taking a child abroad without permission) and specific issue orders (to determine matters such as which school a child should attend, religious upbringing, or health matters) increased from 15 per cent of all parental applications in 2011 to 30 per cent in 2018.

Covering applications made to the family courts between 2007 and 2018, the study used population-level data in private family law linked to demographic data to provide the first demographic and socio-economic profile of the families involved in private cases in Wales.

The first in a series of reports on families in private law proceedings, it was commissioned by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and undertaken by the Family Justice Data Partnership – a collaboration between Lancaster University and Swansea University – in conjunction with the University of Exeter.

Director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory Lisa Harker said: “A significant proportion of children whose futures are being determined by the family courts are the subject of disputes between parents following family separation – yet we know even less about the children and families involved in these cases than we do about those involved in public law proceedings.

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