Lancaster University: Vulnerabilities of adults in private family court proceedings in Wales revealed

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, says new research led by Lancaster University.

Published by Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (Nuffield FJO) and produced by the Family Justice Data Partnership, a collaboration between Lancaster University and Swansea University, the new research reveals that separating families have a range of increased vulnerabilities, including higher levels of healthcare use and rates of severe mental health diagnoses.

Using the SAIL Databank (a secure research environment), researchers linked population-level data, routinely collected by Cafcass Cymru, with hospital and GP records, to provide an overview of health vulnerabilities experienced by 18,653 adults involved in private law proceedings.

Rates were compared to those for a group of adults who were similar in terms of gender, age and level of deprivation in the general population in Wales.

The vast majority of adults involved in private law proceedings are parents who have separated and cannot agree on issues such as where their children should live or who they should spend time with, and subsequently apply to settle the dispute through a family court.

More than twice as many private law 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 (57,602 compared to 19,101 in 2020*). Yet little is known about the families involved, or what support they might need.

The new analysis of Welsh data showed that in the year prior to proceedings, 20 times the proportion of women involved in private law proceedings had exposure to domestic violence and abuse recorded in their GP records than other women – a figure which doesn’t capture domestic violence and abuse which goes unreported.

Although men were less likely than women to have exposure recorded, the disparity between those in proceedings and others in the population was greater than for women. Men were almost 30 times more likely to have exposure to domestic violence and abuse recorded in their GP records.

When looking at health diagnoses, 42% of women and 31% of men had at least one mental health-related GP contact or hospital admission in the year prior to court – rates one and a half times higher than for similar adults in the comparison group.

Women facing private law proceedings were 2.3 times more likely to have had a diagnosis of anxiety in the year prior to proceedings than other women, rising to 2.7 times for men. While around three times as many men and women had a depression-related GP contact or hospital admission in the year prior to proceedings than other men or women.

Severe mental health diagnoses were also more prevalent amongst adults involved in private law proceedings. The prevalence of bipolar disorder (for men and women) and schizophrenia (for women only) was at least twice as high as in the comparison group.

Around 1% of adults in private law proceedings had self-harm recorded as relevant to a hospital admission in the previous year, five times higher than for the comparison group of similar adults.

There were stark differences between the levels of substance use among adults involved in private law proceedings and other adults. 5.5 times the proportion of women and 3.4 times the proportion of men had a hospital admission for substance use in the year prior to proceedings.

Dr Linda Cusworth, from the Centre for Child & Family Justice Research, Lancaster University, and lead author of the report, said: “Our analysis exposes the heightened needs and vulnerabilities of both women and men involved in private law applications to the family courts in Wales, which has important implications for the family justice system, and for health and other services.

“With the increasing emphasis on diverting private family law cases away from the court—primarily through encouraging the use of mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution—it is critical that policymakers give due attention to the wider needs of families and how to better support them to engage with other services.”

Director of Nuffield FJO Lisa Harker said: “Tens of thousands of children are at the centre of private family court disputes every year. Yet until now we have known little about their families, either to allow us to determine what support could be offered to prevent disputes starting or escalating, or to make sure that both children’s and parent’s well-being is protected throughout the court process.

“These findings paint a clear picture of vulnerable men and women, who are more likely to be suffering with poor mental health or substance use issues than others, and are dramatically more likely to have been exposed to domestic violence or abuse. Set against a backdrop of rising private law cases in the family courts, and therefore rising numbers of affected children, it is clear that more must be done to address these families’ needs.”

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