In a move aimed at reducing the burden on the family court system and improving access to justice, the UK government has just proposed the introduction of compulsory mediation for “low level” family disputes. The proposal would require separating couples to attend mediation sessions before they can apply to the court for a decision on matters regarded as ‘low level’, such as child custody and financial arrangements.
The government announced the proposal on March 23, 2023, stating: “Thousands of children could be protected from witnessing their parents thrash out family disputes through the courts, following plans to mandate mediation for separating families.”
The government claims that “the move could help up to 19,000 separating families resolve their issues away from the courtroom, while also reducing backlogs, easing pressures on the family courts and ensuring the justice system can focus on the families it most needs to protect.”
The proposal comes after a review of the family justice system by David Norgrove, Chair of the Family Justice Board, which found that the system is “overburdened, under-resourced, and unaffordable for many.” The review recommended that mediation should be made compulsory for certain types of cases in order to reduce the number of cases going to court and improve outcomes for families.
Under the proposal, separating couples would be required to attend at least one mediation session before they can apply to the court for a decision on matters such as child custody and financial arrangements.
Mediation involves a neutral third party, the mediator, who helps the parties involved in a dispute to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Mediation is currently voluntary, but the proposed changes would make it mandatory for certain low level family disputes to undergo before they can be heard in court.
Until such time that the proposal becomes law, the government has extended its Family Mediation Voucher Scheme until April 2025, backed by an additional £15 million in funding. The scheme provides separating couples with vouchers worth up to £500 to help them solve disputes through mediation and has so far supported over 15,300 families. It is thought the success of this scheme has informed the thinking behind the new proposal.
The UK government believes that compulsory mediation would help to further reduce the number of cases currently clogging up the court system, which is currently struggling to cope with the volume of cases. In addition, the government believes that mediation can help to reduce the emotional and financial costs of going to court, particularly for families who may already be under considerable stress. It is estimated that 36,000 vulnerable families each year will benefit from faster hearings and quicker resolutions as a result.
However, the proposal has been met with a mixed reaction. Supporters of the proposal argue that it will reduce the burden on the family court system and improve outcomes for families by encouraging them to reach agreements through mediation rather than through costly and adversarial court proceedings. They also argue that it will reduce the stress and anxiety that families experience during court proceedings.
However, mediation may not be appropriate for all cases. Some disputes may be too complex or too emotionally charged for mediation to be successful. In addition, there is a risk that mandatory mediation may put pressure on vulnerable individuals to agree to arrangements that are not in their best interests. It can add to delay, and parties can find it daunting that they do not have their legal representative with them and that the more articulate party has an advantage. Mediators are usually professional enough to ensure that both parties are heard but our experience is that not all parties believe this was the case when they attended mediation.
To address these concerns, the UK government has stated that it will ensure that individuals have access to legal advice and support throughout the mediation process. This will help to ensure that individuals are fully informed of their rights and are not coerced into agreeing to arrangements that they are not comfortable with.
In addition to this, there is also a proposal to introduce a new power for judges to order parents to make a reasonable attempt to mediate with possible financial penalties if they act unreasonably and harm a child’s wellbeing by prolonging court proceedings unduly.
The proposal has the potential to provide a more efficient and cost-effective way to resolve disputes. However, it is important to ensure that vulnerable individuals have access to legal advice and support throughout the process and that the system is designed to protect their interests.
Here at Hutchinson Thomas, our aim is always to achieve a timely and cost-effective outcome in a non-confrontational way that is sympathetic to each individual client’s needs. We have considerable experience and well-tested expertise in handling ‘high value’ and financially complicated divorces.
If your relationship has broken down and you need help and advice on reaching a settlement, get in contact with us today: 01792 439 000 or https://hutchinsonthomas.com/contact-us/