The government will fund ‘“one single mediation session for everyone”, if one of the parties is already legally aided’, the justice minister Simon Hughes has announced. This funding commitment follows a government initiative to place more emphasis on mediation as a means to resolve the splitting of childcare and assets following a divorce, rather than costly court proceedings.
Hughes explained the thought process behind the new funding: ‘We know mediation works and we want more people to make use of it. This is why we are announcing today funding for free mediation sessions, improving the advice and information available for couples who are separating.’
The Ministry of Justice cited statistics claiming that last year ‘nearly two-thirds of couples who attended a single mediation session for a child dispute reached a full agreement’. Legal aid for most family cases was cut last April although it has been retained where there is evidence of domestic violence. The MoJ claims that mediation is cheaper than the cost of lawyers and ‘less stressful’ for children than when the cases go to court.
Yet, this announcement has been met with criticism by the family lawyers’ group Resolution. Whilst ‘welcoming’ funding from the government in an area struggling after the legal aid cuts, the group’s chair Jo Edwards points out that mediation was ‘not a suitable route for everyone and it’s important to remember that most couples need more than one session to reach agreement’.
Edwards went on to suggest that the lack of ‘plans to review marriage or divorce law’ in the family justice reforms announced yesterday was ‘disappointing’. She suggested that the principle in family law that demands divorce must be ‘fault-based’ remained ‘a huge barrier’ for couples to resolve their disputes.
Edwards’ arguments that providing funding for mediation simply overlooked the necessity for more fundamental reforms echoed the response many family lawyers had to the 2011 introduction of a compulsory ‘Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting’ (MIAM) before attending court.
According to the Ministry of Justice, attending a MIAM is now ‘a statutory requirement for all separating couples actively to consider mediation before they can go to court over children and financial matters’. ‘Anyone can set themselves up as a mediator and the lack of a guarantee of the quality of mediators could leave some couples who lack a solicitor’s advice ending up in the hands of unregulated or untrained, rogue mediators,’ said David Allison, the previous chair of Resolution,