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Government’s ‘one single mediation session for everyone’ only for those legally aided

Practitioners say the proposal does and will not repair the damage 'wreaked' upon separation proceedings by legal aid cuts

22 August 2014

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Family justice minister Simon Hughes has announced that a single mediation session will be made available for both separating parties, but only if one of them is already legally aided.

At present, only the legally aided party can have the session for free which incurs a cost for the other member of the couple.

The government says that "couples should avoid confrontational courtroom battles and use mediation as more sessions will be funded by government."

According to the government's statistics, last year two thirds of couples who attended just one mediation session for a child dispute reached a full agreement, although no further information was given on if the couples had engaged in any legal proceedings before the session.

The government also says it will be taking forward plans to review Legal Aid Agency contracts with mediation providers to improve service.

Simon Hughes said: "We know mediation works and we want more people to make use of it. This is why we are announcing funding for free mediation sessions, improving the advice and information available for couples who are separating.

Practitioners, however, disagree. Marc Lopatin, mediator and founder of online service, said: "Ministers have wreaked huge damage upon family mediation since cuts to legal aid and this announcement is unlikely to repair that damage. If they want to help, ministers must acknowledge what their own department's data and published research says over and over again: standalone mediation does not meet consumer need.

"Until Ministers use legal aid to align gatekeeper solicitors with family mediators, separating parents will continue to clog up the courts or worse still give up the ghost entirely."

Julia Thackray, course director at CLT and former head of family at Penningtons said the proposal by the government was "far from adequate provision."

"In the context of the disastrous effect of legal aid cuts on referrals to mediation (as well as on access to justice) it's a case of any move that improves the availability of mediation being better than nothing."

Thackray added: "Many couples have very modest incomes, but are not eligible for legal aid and so will still struggle with the costs of advice and mediation. Also, for many couples one session will not be enough to reach a proper, lasting agreement. Nevertheless, for those people who are eligible, the chance to experience for themselves how mediation works, is likely to be very valuable."

The Ministry of Justice commented that they continue to monitor the family justice system and that further work is planned over the coming months. This work will include an assessment of ways to provide better information and advice for separating parents so that fewer couples use the courts when their disputes can be better resolved by other means.

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