April 4, 2014

Why separating couples lose out as family mediation numbers plummet

By Chris Sherwood

Chris Sherwood, Director of Policy and Research, Relate

Deciding to separate or divorce is never easy and new research on family mediation services published by Relate earlier this year shows that things are becoming even harder. 

Our research found a dramatic drop in the number of separating couples accessing Relate’s mediation service since legal aid reforms were introduced last April. These reforms have left many people confused about what support is available and concerned about the potential financial impact of separating. Our practitioners are telling us that people are really confused and don’t realise that legal aid for mediation is still available in many cases. We are worried that the most disadvantaged people who can’t afford to pay privately are either staying in damaging partnerships because they believe they can’t afford to separate, or are trying to cut legal fees by representing themselves in court.

Family mediation is a process in which an impartial third person assists a couple to make arrangements for their separation or divorce. Family mediators can work with couples to resolve disputes around a range of issues including contact arrangements, child maintenance and the division of property and finance. Mediation is an effective option, which can reduce conflict and costly legal fees whilst improving communication between separating couples. Two thirds of couples who started public funded mediation between April 2007 and March 2013 managed to reach agreements.

The Coalition Government promised to “encourage the increased use of flexible, creative and constructive approaches to dispute resolution” like family mediation in the Dispute Resolution Commitment, a partnership between the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Attorney General’s office. The Government has also pledged £10m to pay for 10,000 family mediations. Despite this positive narrative, the take-up of mediation is still dropping.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has significantly changed the way legal aid is allocated in the family justice system, removing support for many types of private family law cases, and narrowing the criteria for accessing legal aid for mediation. Importantly, legal aid is still available for mediation but the LASPO has meant that the eligibility criteria are stricter and fewer people will qualify.

We reviewed our data across five of our mediation services and compared April – September 2012 (before the reforms came into force) with April – September 2013 (after the reforms). The data showed a sharp decline in numbers:

  • 52% decrease in Legal aid funded Mediation Information and Assessment meetings (MIAMs), with MIAMS down by 26% overall
  • 38% decrease in couples starting legal aid funded mediation (down 18% in total)
  • 72% decrease in the number of solicitor referrals to Relate’s mediation services

Family mediation services are in a precarious state and separating couples are losing out, which is why we are calling on the Government to make clear, unambiguous information more easily available on MIAMs, mediation and what support is available through legal aid.

We are also calling on the Government to encourage innovative approaches to delivering mediation and to expand the market for family mediation. An innovation fund could encourage the development of joined-up, wrap-around services for couples and families before, during and beyond separation and divorce. Part of the savings to the Legal Aid bill, following the implementation of LASPO, or the current under spend in the mediation budget could be used to fund this.

At the heart of this issue is the welfare of couples and children in very difficult situations. With nearly six in 10 parents saying they don’t believe in a good separation according to our recent survey, it is clear that finding ways of minimising the impact of relationship breakdown on families is crucial.

You can find out more about resources and Relate’s support services for separating parents at www.relate.org.uk/separation or @relate_charity