By Dr Daniela Azzopardi Bonanno
A quantitative analysis of judgements delivered by the Civil Court (Family Section), commonly referred to as the Family Court, reveals that this court delivers, on average, 247 judgments every six months. Although COVID-19 disrupted heavily the forensic year at the law courts with many sittings being adjourned for reasons related to the pandemic, astonishingly the second part of 2020 did not see a considerable decline in the number of judgments delivered by the Family Court. Between 1 June 2020 and 31 December 2020, 269 judgments were delivered by the Family Court compared to 293 in the same period of 2019, 226 in the same period of 2018 and 199 in the same period of 2017 (This data was collected by carrying out a search on the e-courts website. Last time this data was accessed was on 29/01/2021).
Given that out of the four periods, that of 2019 saw the greatest number of judgments being delivered, I chose to analyse that period in further depth. A thematic analysis of the judgments delivered identifies eight main types of court actions filed before the Family Court, i.e. actions requesting (i) personal separation, (ii) divorce, (iii) annulment, or to establish (iv) the care and custody of minors; (v) maintenance obligations (vi) the termination of the community of acquests, (vii) filiation, or to decide on (viii) warrants of prohibitory injunction.
Upon conducting a quantitative analysis of such judgments, it immediately became clear that the majority of judgments had to do with divorce proceedings. In fact, between 1 June 2019 and 31 December of the same year, 187 judgments pronouncing divorce were delivered. Out of these 187 judgments, 155 court actions had been filed in 2019 hence the judgment followed in a few months; 24 had been filed in the previous year, 3 in 2017 and 2 in 2016. Moreover, 3 of which had been filed in 2010, 2013 and 2015 respectively and such court actions had started out as separation proceedings but were converted to divorce actions during the process. Similarly, 7 judgments related to warrants of prohibitory injunctions had been filed that same year.
Care and custody judgments, i.e. where unmarried parents request the Family Court to decide inter alia on matters related to the care and custody of the children, amounted to 9. One had been filed in the same year, 4 in 2018, 2 in 2016 and one each in 2015 and 2014. Hence it can be observed that such proceedings take, on average, one year to be concluded. Two judgments dealt specifically and solely with the issue of maintenance. Despite the narrow scope of the proceedings, one court action had been filed in 2012 whereas the other had been filed in 2018. A comparison of the two would make an interesting study to elicit the determining factors that caused such a disparity in the length of the proceedings.
It could also be observed that annulment proceedings also take, on average, one year to be concluded since 4 out of the 6 judgments analysed in this study related to court actions that had been filed in 2018, the other 2 had both been filed in 2016.
Out of the 293 judgments delivered in the period under analysis, 16 related to requests to terminate the community of acquests between the parties. Again, it could be observed that the majority of such judgments were delivered within a year, as the request had been filed in the previous year, while 2 were of the same year. Eight (8) of these 16 judgments related to requests scattered through the years between 2014 and 2017.
The majority of filiation or repudiations proceedings took one year or so to be concluded and decided. In the sample of judgments studied, 11 out of 24 were filed in 2018, and 6 were filed in 2017. Only 3 were filed and decided in the same year and only 1 judgment took 3 years (the longest time in the sample) to be delivered.
With regards to judgments relating to personal separations, the length of the proceedings leading to these judgments varied between 13 years to that same year. Thirty four (34) judgments relating to personal separation were delivered out of the 293 judgments in all. Unique cases kept going for 13, 12, 11 and 9 years respectively and only one had been filed that same year. Two cases took 8 years, two took 7 years, two took 6 years to be concluded and three took 3 years. 5 cases took five years, 5 cases took 4 years, five cases took 2 years, and five cases took a year to be concluded and decided.
Therefore, from this analysis it can be concluded that separation cases are the most unpredictable as to the length of their proceedings. Various determining factors come to mind, however this deserves an in-depth study on its own. From this superficial analysis it transpires however that personal separation cases where no issues of care and custody are involved did not vary in the length of time to be finalised as they still spanned over a number of years to be decided upon.
This quantitative analysis should not be taken as establishing hard set time frames for proceedings in the Family Court, however it does shed some light on the average time it takes for court proceedings in the Family Court to be concluded and decided upon according to the nature of their claims.
Dr Daniela Azzopardi Bonanno is Partner at Lex Group Legal