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Judges can help salvage government plans to increase family mediation numbers

New data highlights poor mediation take-up rates, despite ministers 'banging the drum'

2 July 2015

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Official data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has shown that mediation rates have yet to return to pre-legal aid cut levels, as a leading family charity argues the courts need to do more in promoting alternative means of dispute settlement.

The new figures show fewer separating couples now attend family mediation than before the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012.

The latest legal aid mediation data for January to March 2015 shows that the number of mediations is up on previous quarters, with some 2,336 mediations commenced in the first quarter of 2014/15. However, during the same period in 2012/13, mediation rates reached 3,282.

While the increase on previous recent quarters - which were as low as 1,787 - is welcome news, the figures come despite government measures over the past 12 months aimed at encouraging more people to seek settlements away from the courts.

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 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,' said Jane Robey, CEO of National Family Mediation (NFM).

'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,' she added.

Robey continued that ministers were right to seek culture change so that mediation becomes the first port of call for divorcing couples, but added that family court judges must be more willing to embrace mediation and direct those 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,' Robey explained.

For the past year the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been funding NFM's pilot 'at court mediation' project, which helps parents to suspend legal proceedings and meet specialist mediators to negotiate long-term arrangements for children, property, and finance.

'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,' remarked 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.

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