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Couples must consider mediation before divorcing

Published by Frances Gibb, Legal Editor, The Times 2014

 

Thousands of couples who separate each year will have to consider mediation before they head for divorce courts under new laws announced today.

The move coincides with the fallout from “Divorce Day”, the first working day in January, so called because of the surge of inquiries that lawyers receive after the Christmas break.

In reforms included in the Children and Families Bill, a parent seeking a court order to resolve a dispute over children, finances or splitting property must first attend a “mediation information and assessment meeting”.

There will be some exemptions, such as where there is evidence of domestic violence, the Ministry of Justice said. Nearly 120,000 couples in England and Wales separate every year.

Government efforts to divert couples to mediation have so far failed, despite research showing positive results and that it is quicker and cheaper than going to court. The average cost of re­solving property and financial disputes caused by separation is £500 through mediation, compared with £4,000 for issues settled through the courts. The average time for a mediated case is UO days compared with 435 days for non­-mediated cases.

Statistics compiled by the Ministry of Justice have confirmed that the num­ber of couples attending mediation fell by 47 per cent since cuts to legal aid, which funds mediation, took effect last April, although £25 million has been set aside to promote and run both media­tion and the information sessions throughout the country.

A recent survey by Resolution, the 6,500-strong association of family lawyers, also confirmed that divorcing couples were heading to the courts despite millions being spent by the Government to divert them to media­tion. Only half of 4,000 adults surveyed would even consider an out-of-court solution to resolving their disputes.

Mediation involves couples holding discussions, led by a trained mediator, to reach agreements. Couples can then ask a court to make their agreement into a legally binding court order.

The Government continues to make millions of pounds available to pay for family mediation for those who are eligible. In 2012 more than 17,000 people successfully used legally aided mediation.

Simon Hughes, the Family Justice Minister, said: “Mediation works and we are committed to making sure that more people make use of it, rather than go through the confrontational and stressful experience of going to court.

“When people separate we want them to do it in the least damaging way for everyone involved, especially chil­dren. That is why we want them to use the excellent mediation services available to agree a way forward, rather than have one forced upon them.”

There is no such thing as a good divorce when children are involved, according to the majority of parents who have gone through the process (Rosemary Bennett writes).

Almost six out of ten said that it had been an overwhelmingly negative ex­perience, causing heartache and upset for the family. More than half said that it had a bad effect on their children. The survey of separated parents was con­ducted by Relate. Calls to the relation­ships counselling charity in the first week of the month were up by 53 per cent on December.