Children in Central London were separated from their parents for over a year while waiting for a final decision from a court, new figures show.
The Law Society has raised concerns over the family court system, where care proceedings and parental separation cases have been prolonged, leaving “thousands of children in limbo”.
The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) figures revealed children involved in public law cases and separated from their parents by the state in and around Central London's designated family judge area had to wait for 54 weeks to get a final decision on their living arrangements in the last quarter of 2022.
There are 40 family court areas in England, with the Central London area covering court proceedings in 12 local authorities.
The waiting time increased compared to the year before when it was 49 weeks. The Government recommended target is 26 weeks, which only one area did not exceed.
As of May, there were over 52,000 children affected by family court cases. More than 80,000 were caught up in private family law proceedings in the year to March, which were estimated to take almost 45 weeks to be resolved.
The Law Society is calling on the Government to restore early legal advice in family law cases to help parents better understand their rights and options for resolving issues involving children.
Lubna Shuja, Law Society president, said: “What is often missed in the debate around the unacceptable backlogs in our family courts is the impact on children. They are suffering the very real consequences of months and sometimes years of uncertainty about their future, preventing them from having the stability they need to thrive.
“Our members are telling us of instances where court delays are leading to increased tension between parties. This is undermining a collaborative and child-centred approach to family separation.”
In the areas covered by Central London's family judge there were 1,926 children involved in private law proceedings and at least 790 children waiting for a public law case to be resolved in 2021. The number may be higher as figures for some local authorities were not provided.
Cris McCurley, a member of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee, said the entire family courts system is creaking after years of austerity and neglect.
“As a practitioner it is heartbreaking to have to deal with the consequences of this and I worry about the effect on children, some of whom have not seen their primary carer parent for more than three years. There needs to be investment in the system, now,” she added.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We want to support family disputes to be resolved as effectively and quickly as possible and where appropriate to avoid the stress and conflict of the courtroom.
“That is why we have been taking decisive action to improve waiting times in the family courts, with over 3,000 more private law cases reaching conclusion in 2022 than in 2017, and are investing £24 million in our landmark mediation scheme to prevent disputing parents from needing to go to court in the first place – while also investing millions in early legal support for those who do need to see a judge.”