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“More must be done” to address families’ needs before and during private law proceedings

Men and women involved in private law proceedings in Wales are more likely to have experience of mental health difficulties, substance misuse and self-harm than other adults, a new report has found.

10/12/21

“More must be done” to address families’ needs before and during private law proceedings

Parents in private family law cases in Wales are poorer, and have significantly more problems with health, substance abuse and domestic violence than the general population.

These are some of the key findings of a report from Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO), produced by a joint research team from Swansea and Lancaster Universities.

Private law proceedings involve parents (or other carers) who cannot agree arrangements for children. The majority of applications are made by parents for a Child Arrangement Order following separation.

The team studied families making their first applications to family courts between 2014/15 and 2019/20. They looked at anonymised data showing linked GP and hospital admissions, and private law (Cafcass Cymru) data for 18,653 adults, either as an applicant or a respondent. Findings were compared to group of 186,470 matched adults from the general population of Wales.

The study found that almost a third of adults going to private family law lived in the most deprived areas of Wales. Most were parents (94%), and were mostly involved in an application for a child arrangements order. It also found that men were more likely to be applicants (73%), and women more likely to be respondents (68%) in the first application. Furthermore, 84% of the adults were involved in an application between two parents; the remainder of the cases involved one or more non-parents.

Adults had higher levels of health service use in the year prior to proceedings than their peers in the comparison group; differences were greatest for emergency or unplanned care.

Common mental health conditions – notably depression – were between two and a half and three times more likely among adults involved in private law applications in the year prior to proceedings.

More serious mental health problems were rare, but rates among men and women of bipolar disorder and, among women only, of schizophrenia were at least twice as high the general population.

“[Incidence of] attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, conduct disorders, personality disorders, and eating disorders was also higher among adults involved in private family law.” Self harm among men and women in private law proceedings was four to five times more likely.

Harmful use of alcohol and/or drugs was three times more likely among women and twice the rate for men, than the general population. Hospital admissions in this category were even higher: Women in the private law cohort were five and a half times more likely to have a hospital record for substance use and men were three and a half times more likely than the comparison group.

There were significant differences too in levels of domestic violence and abuse. Among women in the family court group, GP records showed that four per cent had been exposed to domestic violence in the year before proceedings began, which is 20 times the general incidence.

Among men in private family court cases, GP records showed that while they were less likely than women to have experienced domestic abuse, but its incidence was 30 times higher than in the comparison group (1.3% compared to 0.05%).

Commenting on the report, Lisa Harker, Director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said: “The findings underline the vulnerabilities of parents who are involved in private law proceedings.”

“This may come as no surprise to those working in private law cases but the significantly higher levels of vulnerability of these parents when compared to their peers is particularly striking.”

Current thinking around reforms is to help more parents resolve disputes without going to the family court. However Jude Eyre, Associate Director at Nuffield FJO, said: “The data is showing that for the private law cohorts, the needs are substantially more significant than for the general population.”

“If you want those cases to be dealt with out of court, then you're going to need to think about the infrastructure around that.”

Cusworth, L. et al. (2021). Uncovering private family law: Adult characteristics and vulnerabilities (Wales). London: Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. Read the full report: https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/resource/uncovering-private-family-law-adult-characteristics-and-vulnerabilities-wales

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