New cases involving children are now at risk of not being heard until March next year at the earliest, after huge pressure has been piled on the legal process by delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Now concerns have been raised that the courts will not be able to give families the legal service they need as they try and settle issues.
Sue Hodgson, head of family law at Lanyon Bowdler, said: “Court lists for Private Children Act work in particular are at breaking point.
"Courts are currently dealing with more than one-and-a-half times the number of private law cases than in January this year, and by January 2021 we expect them to have doubled.
“The court lists are absolutely packed, with judges being fully listed often until March next year, meaning there is little room for hearings to be dealt with without significant delay.
“Whilst the courts clearly wish to provide members of the public with the legal service they deserve and need, given the position of the family courts already being clogged up, there is concern that they will not be able to do so.
“The message being sent by the courts is clear - people need to consider other forms of dispute resolution before rushing to the family court, and that applications for private law litigation should only be made if genuinely necessary.”
Ms Hodgson said there were other ways to settle family disagreements without the need for court proceedings, through Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), such as mediation, collaborative law and private arbitration.
She said that many forms of ADR are as binding as a court decision and provide the same level of certainty and assurance at potentially less cost and in less time, whilst others are designed to give people a ‘taste’ of what a court might decide.
“We have members of our family law team who are experts at helping couples to resolve their disputes by agreement rather than going to court," she added.
“Collaborative law is one way of doing that, but there are also other methods like mediation which are definitely worth investigating before going down the route of court proceedings, which as well as being stressful and costly, will now take a significant amount of time to resolve.”