Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

Good Courts Guide - commentary

- what we said in 1999...

A legal lottery

What we found amounts to a legal lottery, with the outcome very much depending on where you live.

There are around 180 County Courts in England and Wales. Although in any year, between 70-90 courts do not make any orders refusing contact, they are not always the same courts. In fact only 13 courts have never refused an application for contact in each of the last seven years (Table 1).

Although the national average for refusals has been steadily falling from 6% in 1991 to less than 1.5% in 1999, some courts such as Doncaster have consistently refused four to five times this figure. And five courts which account for only 12% of the applications made each year, provide nearly 25% of the country's refusals. (Table 2)

Doncaster is of particular interest because it has:

Just what is going on there? Are the residents of Doncaster so different from the rest of the country? So much worse than Liverpool and Manchester ?

It is difficult to see how the wide variations in refusals of contact orders are attributable to anything other than the range of judicial attitudes in different courts.

Welfare reports

There are also enormous variations in the number of welfare reports ordered by the courts. Although the courts do not distinguish between the applications for which the reports are made (Parental Responsibility, Residence, Contact, Prohibited Steps and Specific Issue), it is reasonable to assume that half the reports are prepared for contact applications. In five of the last seven years, 14 courts have ordered one or more reports per application (Table 3), whereas five courts have ordered reports in less than 1 in 5 cases. (Table 4)

Particular concerns and anomalies

Some courts gave particular cause for concern. If you have been in one of the following courts, we would like to hear from you:

Changes needed

We would like to see more uniformity of decision making and we will be recommending that the Lord Chancellor's Office:

Method and terminology

The data relates to Private Law applications for contact made in the County Court, and the figures refer to the number of children for whom applications are sought and orders made. The County Courts cover disputes between married, divorcing or divorced people and other related persons; unmarried parents' cases are heard in the Family Proceedings Courts (Magistrates courts).

For some reason the applications are divided into 'within divorce' and 'other'. Our understanding is that 'within divorce' relates to applications made during the period from the filing of a petition for divorce, up to the pronouncement of the decree nisi. The 'other' applications appear to relate to applications made before or after those times, or by other persons (such as grandparents) at any time. Although there are differences in the outcomes of these two types of applications, they did not appear to be consistent across the courts, so for simplicity we have combined the figures in order to give a picture of the outcomes across the whole life cycle of divorce.

We would have liked to relate outcomes to applications, but the information is collected on a monthly, quarterly or yearly basis and is the bare number of applications and outcomes in any particular year. Thus, as applications made in one particular year may not necessarily be adjudicated on in that year, there is no way of relating applications to outcomes. Although we tried to show outcomes as percentages of applications there were many anomalies, so we settled for showing each outcome as a percentage of the total outcomes in that year.

The main terms relating to outcomes are:

"Where a court is considering whether or not to make one or more orders under this Act with respect to a child, it shall not make the order or any of the orders unless it considers that doing so would be better for the child than not making an order at all" [Children Act 1989 - Section 1(5)]


Table 1 - Courts which have never refused an application for contact in the last seven years

Court Applications Refusals
Aberystwyth 130 0
Accrington 390 0
Consett 227 0
Hereford 361 0
Hertford 199 0
Leigh 354 0
Penrith 89 0
Rawtenstall 151 0
Runcorn 344 0
Southport 379 0
Whitehaven 174 0
Wigan 861 0
Workington 149 0

Table 2 - The five courts which provide around 25% of the country's refusals each year

- table of refusals in each year

Court 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998
Birmingham 1 0 17 32 51 42 7
Doncaster 6 16 20 26 42 45 48
Leeds 3 7 12 2 38 38 35
PRDF 10 50 41 40 46 13 11
Sheffield 24 45 31 50 55 34 26
TOTALS (a) 44 118 121 150 232 172 127
England & Wales (b) 193 494 572 609 813 714 565
(a)/(b) as a percentage 23% 24% 21% 24% 29% 24% 22%

Table 3 - the 14 courts which have ordered one or more welfare reports per case in five of the last seven years

Court % reports
Bishop Auckland 126
Chesterfield 153
Darlington 140
Dudley 134
Liverpool 160
Manchester 150
Rotherham 160
Sheffield 173
Stockport 160
Stoke-on-Trent 154
Truro 193
Walsall 143
Whitehaven 180
Wolverhampton 135

Table 4 - the 5 courts which have ordered welfare reports in less than 1 in 5 cases in five of the last seven years

Court % reports
Chelmsford 15
Colchester 12
Coventry 6
Norwich 16
Southport 0

Last updated - 26 November 1999

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