You are here

Inside Northern Ireland's family courts

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 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).

Our examination of the 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.

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.

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.


Related dataset: