Care proceedings rise steeply in family courts during UK lockdown

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The number of urgent care proceedings in the family courts has increased sharply since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Guardian has learned.

Judicial sources say that a combination of the lockdown leading to families being forced to spend the majority of their time together, often in confined spaces, increased drinking by some parents and major money worries are a toxic combination, which is putting vulnerable children at risk. Some family courts have seen a fivefold increase in care proceedings cases in recent weeks.

As courts are often operating remotely using phone or Skype hearings during the pandemic there are particular challenges when children are involved.

Aysen Soyer, head of the family law team at Wilson Solicitors, said that she and her team have been working at full capacity since the lockdown began.

“It happened overnight,“ said Soyer. “In family court proceedings last week we had two children removed from their parents by phone – that’s unheard of,” she said.

She added that it was harder to control parents’ emotions when their children were about to be removed from them when court proceedings were taking place on the phone. Care proceedings are the most urgent matters in the family courts but the way things are working it’s a disaster.”

She said it was “inevitable” to reach the conclusion that the pressures of the lockdown were leading to an increase in care proceedings.

“Things that might have bubbled away for a bit longer with toxic family relationships have been brought to the fore by the pandemic. Care proceedings are going at a higher rate. Guardians and solicitors are not able to visit children at the moment. My team have been furiously busy since the lockdown started. I think that initially it will get worse and then lawyers and the family courts will find a way to deal with this. At the moment things are just desperate.”

According to the NSPCC, self-isolating and quarantine can cause stress and changes in everyone’s behaviour. Families are under new pressures and they have warned people to be alert to children who are withdrawn, or aggressive or very young children left alone or outdoors by themselves.

Domestic violence is sometimes but not always a factor in care proceedings. On Saturday the home secretary, Priti Patel, launched a public awareness campaign for domestic abuse victims. She said that talks were ongoing to provide charities and the domestic abuse commissioner with an extra £2m to boost domestic abuse helplines and online support.

Unicef has issued new guidance about protection of children during the lockdown. Officials warn that children are at heightened risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence during the lockdown. They say that many children are likely to face an increasing threat to their safety and wellbeing.

A HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson said: “Cases involving vulnerable children will always be prioritised and we are using technology to maintain access to justice as far as possible.This is kept under constant review and judges and courts will continue to work with all in the family justice system to respond to any increases in demand.”

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