October 25, 2013

Information campaign vital as millions in public funding for mediation lies unspent

The announcement that mediation centres aimed at helping couples to separate without the trauma of going to court are under threat – while the best part of £25 million in public funding to help such couples lies untouched – requires addressing as a priority.

Mediation is a highly effective way for both parties to discuss, agree and resolve issues and our impartial and experienced mediators at Jones Myers help couples to agree on all aspects of their separation. The approach avoids both parties taking a confrontational stance in a public court which could impact on any children involved in the proceedings. Mediation also gives the couple control over their separation as they are making the important decisions.

Sadly, the service is dramatically underused with government figures highlighting that the number of couples attending mediation sessions has plummeted by over 50 per cent from 2,800 couples in May 2012 to just 1,200 this year. These statistics reinforce the pressing need for a comprehensive information campaign which is jointly driven by the government and our own profession.

This dramatic dip is all the more ironic because the government had hoped that the swingeing cuts to Legal Aid introduced in April 2013  – and designed to cut the Legal Aid bill by £350m a year by 2015 – would prompt more people to seek out mediation because they would be unable to claim public funding to undertake court proceedings.

The government stresses that it never intended to discourage mediation – and we have previously commented on Family Justice Minister Lord McNally calling on mediators to lead the way in helping separating couples resolve their issues without going to court.

As a firm, we predicted how removing Legal Aid – which enabled financially weaker couples to seek legal advice and representation to help resolve their problems – could put vulnerable children at risk and deny youngsters contact with their parents. The drop in mediation figures leaves us in no doubt that removing public funding for what are known as financial remedies applications – which enable couples to sort out their marital assets – has led directly to a drop in referrals to mediation services. This is because a referral to mediation had to be made before Legal Aid can be granted for such applications – so couples are asked to explore mediation before they know if public funds are available.

From April 2014, it is expected that a new law will require those separating in the courts to at least have explored mediation – a development which the government is confident will reignite a need for this process. Couples will have to undergo a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM) to find out about alternatives to court proceedings before they can issue a court application.

We firmly believe that if the requirement for a MIAM is more rigorously enforced from April 2014, referral rates will start to increase again. Moreover, if the requirement to refer is linked to issuing a financial remedies application in relation to their financial or children related issues it should  be ‘business as usual’ for mediators.

It is heartening to see how mediators are being proactive in areas such as Wakefield where a rota has been set up to ensure that mediators are on hand at court. Discussions are also underway to implement a similar system in Leeds.

As a practice we do not advocate mediation as the ultimate remedy for all divorcing couples. In our vast experience, it remains one of several effective non-court based ways of resolving family problems.

However we do champion how harnessing mediators’ pro-activity, commitment and drive across the depth and breadth of the UK – bolstered by a rigorous government campaign to promote awareness of the funding available – will go a long way to enhance awareness and understanding.

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