A record number of child-custody cases were fought in court last month, in what experts believe may be a rush before cuts to legal aid start to bite.
Figures released yesterday by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) show that a record 9,398 new private law cases were heard in May, around nine out of 10 of which related to parental-custody battles. The figure is up 27 per cent on the same month last year, when 7,388 were heard.
The figures are a source of worry to child-welfare experts who say mediation, rather than legal disputes, is better for children. Cafcass believes changes to legal-aid funding may be to blame.
Chief executive Anthony Douglas said: “This record increase suggests that courts remain the go-to solution for parents locked in some of the most bitter and sometimes violent disputes after separation and divorce. Imposing decisions on adults in this way is never as good as mediation or a negotiated agreement, where it is safe to do so, and children usually end up suffering even more.
"All of us in the family justice system are working hard to steer families towards more constructive alternatives to court applications.
"Cafcass will also continue to discuss the reasons behind any changes to application levels with solicitors and other family-justice agencies over the coming months."
An NSPCC spokesman said: "Currently only a minority of divorcing couples resort to the courts to solve contact disputes, showing that most find better ways, so we'd be concerned if this began to rise long term.
“We feel that mediation sessions are effective for parents who need help to understand how to place the needs of their child, rather than their own feelings, at the forefront of any decisions about contact arrangements.
As long as sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure that the sessions are not used with families where domestic violence and other forms of abuse are present, this has to be the best option for children.”