Freedom of information request confirms family lawyers's fears
Legal aid cuts have triggered a dramatic drop in the number of divorcing couples opting for mediation, according to the latest government figures.
Judicial guidance requires couples contemplating a divorce to consider mediation before starting court proceedings, but delegates to Resolution conference heard that mediation information and assessment meetings fell 47 per cent in the past year.
The figures were revealed following a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice by mediator Marc Lopatin, who runs a lawyer-supported mediation service.
Lopatin's figures resonated with several delegates, who said innovation, adaptability and no small amount of stamina and tenacity were going to be required for those attempting to help couples to use mediation and other constructive approaches to divorce.
"The promotion of mediation has been used by the government as a partial justification for the stringent cuts to eligibility for family legal aid it now appears that the drop in figures is largely attributable to those very legal aid cuts," said family solicitor Julia Thackray.
Thackray, former head of family at Penningtons and now lecturer for CLT, said clients previously eligible for legal aid were "self-filtering" themselves out of mediation.
"With many people knowing - or suspecting - that they will be unable to get legal aid, and many lawyers not taking legal aid enquiries, the referrals to the information sessions have reduced," she said.
The Family Procedure Rules and accompanying Practice Directions were introduced to divert cases to mediation information meetings before court action, but the conference heard from David Emmerson, deputy chair of Resolution's Dispute Resolution Committee that the cuts to legal aid have discouraged more people from taking advice at all before going to court, leading to many not considering mediation.
The guidance provides that there 'should' be a referral to an information meeting before a court application, and it is expected that this will become a statutory requirement in the new Children and Families Bill.
The new law would reverse this pattern but several Resolution delegates reported that many services offering mediation were struggling to survive, with a number already closed down.