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Uncovering private family law: Adult characteristics and vulnerabilities (Wales)

Authors & Organisations
Dr Linda Cusworth: Lancaster University
Dr Claire Hargreaves: Lancaster University
Dr Bachar Alrouh: Lancaster University
Professor Karen Broadhurst: Lancaster University
Rhodri D Johnson: Swansea University Medical School
Dr Lucy J Griffiths: Swansea University Medical School
Ashley Akbari: Swansea University Medical School
Dr Stefanie Doebler: Lancaster University
Professor Ann John: Swansea University
Authors
Dr Linda Cusworth
Dr Claire Hargreaves
Dr Bachar Alrouh
Professor Karen Broadhurst
Rhodri D Johnson
Dr Lucy J Griffiths
Ashley Akbari
Dr Stefanie Doebler
Professor Ann John
Organisations
Lancaster University
Lancaster University
Lancaster University
Lancaster University
Swansea University Medical School
Swansea University Medical School
Swansea University Medical School
Lancaster University
Swansea University

About


This report by the Family Justice Data Partnership a collaboration between Lancaster University and Swansea University exposes the heightened socioeconomic and health vulnerabilities of women and men involved in private law proceedings in Wales between 2014/15 and 2019/20.

The research team analysed anonymised linked healthcare (GP and hospital admissions) and private law (Cafcass Cymru) data for 18,653 adults involved in their first private family law application, either as an applicant or a respondent, between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2020.

Findings were compared to a group of 186,470 adults in the general population of Wales with similar demographic characteristics,
matched on age, gender, local authority and deprivation quintile.

Within the cohort group:

  • 94% were parents, and mostly involved in an application for a child
    arrangements order
  • men were more likely to be applicants (73%), and women more likely to be respondents (68%)
  • 84% were involved in an application between two parents the remainder of the cases involved one or more non-parents
  • almost a third of adults lived in the most deprived areas of Wales.

What are ‘private law children cases’ of ‘proceedings’?


Where parents (or other carers) cannot agree arrangements for children, an application can be made to the court under the Children Act 1989. The majority of applications are made by parents for a child arrangement order following separation, but there are a range of other orders available for different circumstances.

Introduction


Private law children cases relate to disagreements or disputes, usually
between parents after relationship breakdown (although they may involve grandparents or other family members), about arrangements for a child’s upbringing, such as where a child should live and/or who they should see.

Currently, the evidence base to inform policy and practice in England
and Wales is much less developed for private than public family law, even
though there are more than twice as many private law cases each year than public law (or child protection) cases. Through the use of population-level data, the Uncovering Private Family Law series—researched by the Family Justice Data Partnership, a collaboration between Lancaster University and Swansea University— aims to help address this deficit.

Earlier reports in the series started to develop a demographic profile of the families involved in private law proceedings, including levels of deprivation, the patterns of orders applied for, and the proportion of repeat applications, in both Wales and England.1

The report on which this summary is based extends this work by providing an in-depth look at the pre-court needs and vulnerabilities of the adults involved with the aim of helping to inform policy and practice and enable appropriate system reform, both within and outside the court.

The research team analysed anonymised linked healthcare (GP and hospital admissions) and private law (Cafcass Cymru) data for 18,653 adults involved in their frst private family law application, either as an applicant or a respondent between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2020. Findings were compared to a comparison group of 186,470 adults in the general population of Wales with similar demographic characteristics, matched on age, gender, local authority and deprivation quintile.

  • The majority of adults in the cohort group were parents (94%), mostly involved in an application for a child arrangements order.
  • Men were more likely to be applicants (73%), and women more likely to be respondents (68%) in the first application they were involved in.
  • 84% of the adults were involved in an application between two parents; the remainder of the cases involved one or more non-parents.
  • Almost a third of adults lived in the most deprived areas of Wales.

Key findings


This study can only present on issues that were both known to healthcare practitioners and coded into patient records within the study period. As such the figures presented are likely to be underestimates for both the cohort and comparison groups.

Healthcare use

Adults involved in private law applications had higher levels of health service use in the year prior to proceedings than their peers in the comparison group—differences were greatest for emergency or unplanned care.

  • Around a quarter (26%) of both men and women in a private law application had an emergency department attendance, compared with 16% in the comparison group.
  • 12% of women and 7% of men in the cohort group had an emergency hospital admission—almost double the rate of the comparison group (6% and 4% respectively).

Mental health

Both men and women involved in private law proceedings had higher levels of mental health problems than their peers.

 

  • More than 4 in 10 women (41.7%) and 3 in 10 men (31.2%) in the cohort group had at least one mental health-related GP contact or hospital admission in the year prior to court—this represents one and a half
    times the level for men and women in the comparison group.
  • Common mental health conditions were between two and a half and three times more likely among adults involved in a private law application. In the year prior to proceedings, 13% of women and 9% of
    men had a diagnosis of depression, with 12% and 7% respectively having a diagnosis of anxiety.
  • Although only small numbers of adults involved in private law proceedings had diagnoses of more serious mental illnesses, 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.
  • Prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorders, personality disorders and eating disorders was also higher among adults involved in private family law—with levels between one and a half and two and a half times those in the comparison group.

Substance use

Known substance use—indicative of problem, harmful or hazardous use of alcohol and/or drugs—was higher in the group of adults involved in private law proceedings.

  • Based on combined GP and hospital admission records, substance use was recorded for 2.6% of cohort women and 2.8% of men in the year prior to proceedings—over three times the rate of women and approaching twice the rate of men in the comparison group.
  • The relative difference is even more marked for hospital records of substance use. Women in the private law cohort were five and a half times more likely to have a hospital record for substance use and men were three and a half times more likely than the comparison group.

Self-harm

Men and women in private law proceedings were more likely to have had an episode of self-harm than their peers.

  • In the year leading up to court proceedings, 1.7% of women and 1.5% of men had at least one episode of self-harm recorded in their GP records—rates between four and five times higher than the comparison group.

Domestic violence and abuse

 

In the year prior to proceedings, 4% of women in the cohort group
had exposure to domestic violence and abuse recorded in their GP records—20 times the rate of women in the comparison group (0.2%). 2

  • Although proportionally very low, women in the cohort group were also more than 11 times as likely to have a domestic violence and abuse related hospital admission (0.24%, compared with 0.02%).

Men in both the cohort and comparison groups were less likely than women to have exposure to domestic violence and abuse recorded—but the disparity between the two groups was greater than for women.

  • Men in the cohort group were almost 30 times more likely to have exposure to domestic violence and abuse recorded in their GP records in the year prior to proceedings than those in the comparison group (1.3% compared to 0.05%) and almost 17 times more likely to have a domestic violence and abuse-related hospital admission (0.1% compared to 0.007%).

Data gaps and limitations


The authors acknowledge the following limitations.

  • Studies based on administrative data are necessarily limited by the
    scope and quality of available data, collected primarily for non-research
    purposes. The Cafcass Cymru database records the extent of its
    involvement in a case, which in private law often ends at the first hearing, unless concerns exist over child welfare and the court has directed further work or has decided to appoint a children’s guardian under 16.4 of the Family Procedure Rules. In addition, this data source does not record directly who a child is living with at the time an application is made, nor whether or not there are safeguarding issues, such as domestic abuse.
  • Demographic profiling is limited by the availability of data on
    demographic characteristics. For example, neither the Cafcass Cymru nor the health data used in this study records ethnicity or religion. The Welsh Longitudinal General Practice (WLGP) data contains GP records for patients registered with a GP in approximately 80% of practices that supply data to the SAIL Databank. As such, information for GP-based measures was not available for all adults in the cohort or comparison groups. Measures were calculated using the same method for both groups and therefore the comparisons remain valid, although we recommend any more detailed analyses should investigate thisfurther.

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This report was written in partnership with
  • Lancaster University logo
    Lancaster University
  • Family Justice Data Partnership logo
    Family Justice Data Partnership
  • SAIL Databank logo
    SAIL Databank
  • Population Data Science at Swansea University
    Population Data Science at Swansea University
  • Centre for Child and Family Justice Research logo
    The Centre for Child and Family Justice Research
  • Adolescent Mental Health Data Platform logo
    Adolescent Mental Health Data Platform
  • Swansea University Medical School logo
    Swansea University Medical School
Notes

1 Cusworth, L., Bedston, S., Trinder, L., Broadhurst, K., Pattinson, B., Harwin, J. et al. (2020). Who’s coming to court? Private family law applications in Wales. London:
Nufeld Family Justice Observatory. Cusworth, L., Bedston, S., Alrouh, B., Broadhurst, K., Johnson, R.D., Akbari, A. et al. (2021). Uncovering private family law: Who’s coming to court in England? London: Nufeld Family Justice Observatory.

2 Note that the same clinical codes are used in both a victim’s and perpetrator’s medical records. This means we cannot tell from the data whether the adult was a victim or the perpetrator.

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