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Private law: parental separation and divorce

How can the well-being of children and families be improved following parental separation?

Our aim is to understand which families are coming to court following separation, and why. We want to ensure children’s views and experiences are heard, and unpick what parents want and need from the system to support them in parenting apart.

Close-up of child's eyes

Why we need research into private law


The family court has a role in resolving disputes between separating parents over child arrangements – known as private law. More than twice as many private law applications are started in England and Wales each year than public law applications. Yet little is known about the children and families appearing in the system, their background and particular issues, or the services available to them on their journey towards the courtroom.

Those within the family justice system express concerns about rising cases numbers, difficulties in parents accessing legal advice, the ability to respond to issues such as domestic abuse, the impact of protracted cases on children’s welfare, litigation over ‘trivial’ issues, and a lack of children’s voices throughout the process.

There is a lack of evidence about those involved in private law cases, and about how the welfare of children can be protected.

What we are doing


  • Nuffield FJO research is providing new empirical evidence on the profile of children and families entering private law proceedings in England and Wales. In the first independent analyses of population-level data, produced by the Family Justice Data Partnership in 2020 and early 2021, we uncovered links with deprivation and significant variations in the volumes of applications across the regions.
  • Future studies in this series will focus on parental vulnerabilities, including mental health and substance misuse, to add to our understanding of those making private law applications.
  • Looking beyond the data, we are also commissioning qualitative research to explore the experiences of a range of children and adult family members more closely. This research will also be used to inform new Ministry of Justice pilots, which will be testing new approaches to delivering family justice in private law proceedings at two pathfinder sites in Bournemouth and North Wales.
  • We are continuously engaging with those in the sector, bringing data to prompt debates about ways to manage private law cases both in and out of court, including informing the work of the Private Law Advisory Group and the Ministry of Justice Domestic Abuse review.

Explore our research on private law

Project

Private law | 2021 – 2021

Parents’ and their children’s experiences of separation and support

What are the experiences of families when parents separate? Nuffield Family Justice Observatory is funding research at the University of Bristol to explore in detail the issues that parents undergoing separation and their children face, how they feel about them and what support they think might be helpful. The research…

Type

Project

Region

England
Wales
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Externally reviewed
Resource

Private law | 2021

Uncovering private family law: Who’s coming to court in England?

This summary highlights the main findings of the second report in the Uncovering Private Family Law series. The research was carried out by the Family Justice Data Partnership—a collaboration between the University of Lancaster and the University of Swansea. Disputes between parents over child arrangements following family separation make up…

Resource type

Report
Summary

Region

England

Methodology

National administrative data
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Externally reviewed
Resource

Private law | 2020

Uncovering private family law: Who’s coming to court in Wales?

This summary highlights the main findings of the first report in the Uncovering Private Family Law series. The research was carried out by the Family Justice Data Partnership—a collaboration between the University of Lancaster and the University of Swansea—in conjunction with Professor Liz Trinder, University of Exeter. Disputes between parents…

Resource type

Report
Summary

Region

Wales

Methodology

National administrative data
View resource
View resource

Infographic

What do we know about children in the family justice system?

Our infographic pulls together what we know, and what we don’t know, about children’s journeys through the family justice system from national data.

Profile