Monday, June 29, 2015

Disappointing government mediation data highlights role of judges in boosting take-up

The family court system has an ace to play to help salvage government plans to increase the take-up of family mediation, says a leading family charity after new official data showed mediation has yet to return to pre-legal aid cut levels.

New Ministry of Justice figures show fewer separating couples now attend family mediation than before the devastating legal aid changes of 2013, despite government measures of the past 12 months aimed at encouraging people to seek settlements away from courtrooms.

“In their bid to boost the take-up of mediation, Ministers have already played a number of cards yet the national mediation data remains doggedly low,” said Jane Robey, CEO of National Family Mediation (NFM).

“Ministers are right to seek culture change so that mediation becomes the first port of call for divorcing couples.

“Family court judges must be more willing to embrace mediation, using the powers they already have to direct people who come before courts towards alternative means of settling disputes.

“We need Ministers to bang the drum for mediation, and to join up with other government departments to do so. For the past year the Department for Work and Pensions has been funding NFM’s pilot ‘at court mediation’ project, which helps parents who have been separated for more than two years and are currently in the family court system to suspend legal proceedings and meet specialist mediators to negotiate long-term arrangements for children, property and finance.

“The successful project shows that couples who have become entrenched in conflict can, with the right help, find an exit from the courtroom drama and move on in a positive way.

“Judges across the country need to learn from this project and follow suit. It’s an ace that can be played to help salvage the attainment of government Ministers’ ailing objective.”

The new legal aid mediation data for January to March 2015, issued by the Ministry of Justice, shows that whilst the number of mediation starts is up on previous quarters, it has not yet returned to the higher levels before the introduction of 2013’s LASPO Act. It also shows a decline in the national success rate of mediation compared with the same quarter in 2014.

“The data can be seen as evidence that many separating couples simply see the compulsory mediation information meeting as a hoop to jump through on the way to court,” added Jane Robey.

Last month the UK’s most senior judge, Lord Neuberger, said mediation is particularly suitable for “ordinary people” and “average citizens” in the current economic climate.

In April 2014 the government made it compulsory for couples to attend a mediation information meeting before they could apply for a court order, and have since begun a scheme making a mediation session free for both parties where only one is legally aided.

The data can be downloaded here.

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