There has certainly been a chorus of warnings about possible changes to the family justice system, in particular the introduction of compulsory mediation, in the spending review and/or the Family Justice Review.
Last Thursday the Law Society Gazette told us that: "Family solicitors have warned that government plans to divert private law disputes over children away from the courts and towards mediation may not lead to child-focused outcomes." Jenny Beck, head of the family team at London firm TV Edwards, is quoted as saying: "Mediation is a voluntary process through which parties can try to reach agreement in relation to arrangements for children. While it is hoped that the adults present focus on prioritising children, I am aware of cases where this sadly doesn’t happen ... If parents can together reach a child-centred solution, then mediation is far preferable to court, but if they cannot, there needs to be state intervention through the courts".
Yesterday Resolution issued a news release which "called for a return to evidence based policymaking on family law and warned against simplistic solutions to the complexities of family breakdown". Chair of the association David Allison is quoted as saying: "Our members recognise that each family needs a process that is right for them – that can be mediation, but might also be collaborative law, parent information and in some cases court. We are deeply concerned that in its hurry to bring about cost-saving reforms, the Government is going to narrow the gateway to court to such an extent that those families who need it cannot access it."
Lucy Reed of Pink Tape has added her voice. She points out that if compulsory mediation is announced this week in advance of the Family Justice Review, then that will rather tend to undermine the purpose and credibility of the Review. She goes on: "You can say that parties must attend mediation, but I doubt that it is realistic to suppose we could enforce that attendance. And you also can’t force parties to agree. If you want to force parties to adhere to a particular arrangement you need a court. Some cases will always need court assistance."
The UK Human Rights Blog takes a similar view: "Mediation has been presented as a cure-all before, notably in the 1999 civil justice reforms. But compulsory pre-court mediation needs willing parties, or it will be reduced to parties spending more money going through the motions in order that they can get into court."
Is anyone in government listening? I doubt it. In fact, it seems clear that the decision has already been made. The temptation to introduce what David Allison calls 'a quick fix solution to the problems facing the family justice system', which will apparently simultaneously achieve substantial financial savings for the Government has been too great. In the long run, however, it may only store up problems for the future. As Lucy Reed warns, without the court parents may "simply carry on their conflict outside of any managed or moderated environment", which may lead to children suffering emotional harm which "will go unchecked until it emerges in behavioural difficulties or underperformance at school or is played out in difficulties with relationships in adult life".
On the other hand, all these voices of doom may be proved wrong. Perhaps compulsory mediation will be the great answer to everything. One thing seems certain: that that proposition is going to be put to the test.