The government has pulled the plug on its national mediation helpline whilst pledging to move out-of-court initiatives ‘centre stage’. The helpline was axed as a result of a continuing decline in calls, mediation referrals and settlements – of the calls it received, two-thirds had nothing to do with mediation.
Earlier this year the justice minister Jonathan Djanogly told the Civil Mediation Council conference of his plans to ‘move mediation centre stage within our civil justice system’ as part of its planned legal aid and civil justice reforms. Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, legal aid will be scrapped for divorcing couples (unless there is evidence of domestic violence). Instead, they will be referred to mediation to sort out their differences before being allowed to use the courts. ‘I have long been a believer in mediation,’ Djanogly told the conference. ‘Why get involved in an expensive, long-winded and often stressful litigious process, and have your dispute decided by someone else, when you could remain in control and shape the outcome through mediation? For far too long, access to justice has been equated with “having one’s day in court”.’ He argued that people were ‘frequently suing businesses for disproportionately large sums, often for trivial reasons and without regard to personal responsibility’ and that activity was ‘fuelled by conditional fee agreements’. The government plans on introducing automatic referral to mediation for all small claims cases ‘possibly up to £15,000’. ‘For the first time, mediation would become part of the court process,’ he said.
‘We find it surprising that the Ministry of Justice is promoting the benefits of mediation and, at the same time, closing the National Mediation Helpline and failing to ensure that there is impartial, accessible information available to people about how to access mediation,’ commented Advice Services Alliance policy director, Ann Lewis. The Advice Services Alliance runs the ADRnow website (www.adrnow.org.uk) which provides members of the public with practical and reliable information about mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution. In January, the Legal Services Commission, which runs the legal aid scheme, decided not to renew an annual grant of £12,000 and the site now has no government support.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson says that the government was ‘working to improve ways for people to find information about mediation’ and that the online content has been be moved to www.direct.gov. ‘The decision to close the helpline in its current format has been taken after careful consideration of the on-going costs of running the Helpline, its effectiveness and usage amongst the courts,’ the MoJ says. The Helpline costs approximately £90,000 a year to operate and – according to the MoJ – over the past few years, calls, mediation referrals and settlements had ‘continued to fall’ and ‘approximately two-thirds of all calls to the helpline have nothing to do with mediation’.