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Arbitration 'could revolutionise' family disputes

Service 'ideal for middle England', but doubts over take-up

27 February 2012

The first ever family law arbitration scheme, involving solicitors, barristers and retired judges, “could revolutionise” the settlement of disputes, a leading family lawyer has said.

The scheme is operated by the newly-formed Institute of Family Law Arbitrators (IFLA), backed by Resolution and the Family Law Bar Association.

Marilyn Stowe, senior partner of Stowe Family Law and Solicitors Journal columnist, is one of the first 35 trained arbitrators. “Arbitration is swift, fair, flexible and strictly private,” she said. “It is potentially significantly cheaper, and need not follow the more lengthy process adopted by the courts dealing with similar matters.”

Because arbitration hearings could take place in informal settings, they could be less “emotionally burdensome” for the parties, the Leeds-based solicitor said before adding: “Arbitrators have wide-ranging powers to make decisions on any case management or significant decisions upon which the parties involved can’t agree.” It could “revolutionise” settlement of family disputes in England, she said.

Nigel Shepherd, law reform spokesman at Resolution and another trained arbitrator, said arbitration was much more flexible and faster than getting a decision from the courts.

“I don’t think anyone wanting to fix an arbitration today will have to wait anything like the time they have to for a decision from the courts,” he said. “There is flexibility over the issues the parties want to be heard and over the procedure.

“You get to choose the suitably qualified person you want to make the award and the venue. It could potentially be anywhere, at any time. All you need is a room and a computer to make a decision.”

Shepherd said arbitrators could make themselves available after 6pm, which would be particularly useful for people with childcare responsibilities.

He said arbitration was not just for high-value divorces, but was “ideal for middle England”, particularly if it was serviced out of London. The first group of arbitrators included solicitors from some of the smaller practices in the regions, he said.

Shepherd added that arbitration awards could be turned into formal court orders within divorce proceedings, as with consent orders. Appeals against arbitration awards could be made to the family courts.

James Stewart, co-chairman of Collaborative Family Law (CFL) and partner at Manches, said clients were asking for all forms of dispute resolution procedure.

Stewart said he and a “significant number” of CFL members were training to become arbitrators. He described arbitration as particularly attractive to wealthier clients as it provided a “private forum” at a time when reforms had “partly opened” the doors of the courts to the media.

“Many clients, especially high-net-worth individuals, will have an extremely busy diary,” Stewart said. “Arbitrations can be organised around their diaries.”

Fiona Read, partner at Russell-Cooke in Putney and a qualified arbitrator, said arbitration was “urgently needed to relieve some of the pressure on the court time and delays which are getting worse now with the government cut backs”.

Read said that once arbitration was up and running she envisaged it would become a “mainstream alternative” to going to court when negotiations broke down.

Maggie Roberts, partner at Foot Anstey in Taunton, said she was not sure what the demand for arbitration would be in Somerset. “It has taken a long time to get people to understand and take up the process of mediation,” she said.

“Collaborative law is also very new and I’m glad more people are asking about it. People need to have heard that their friends and acquaintances have gone through a process such as arbitration to go for it themselves.”

IFLA will be formally launched next month at Inner Temple by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer.

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