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New year family mediation spike expected by NFM

Charity cautions Ministers on longer term

Although recent figures show declining numbers of people are attending family mediation, National Family Mediation believes that the new year can still bring the traditional spike in demand for its services.

But the charity warns that the longer term future could be bleak unless Ministers take a more proactive approach to ensuring their pro-family mediation policies succeed.

Jane Robey, the charity's CEO, said:

"Recent figures indicate publicly funded mediation numbers have slumped. They are compounded by our own research showing a worrying lack of compliance with the 2014 law which makes attendance at a mediation information and assessment meeting (MIAM) compulsory before a court order can be applied for.

"Boosting mediation numbers should not be difficult since powers already exist, but we need to see enforcement of the legislation. Stronger monitoring and a more proactive government approach would, we believe, transform the situation. It would avoid the government being embarrassed by watching its pro-mediation policy die on its feet. 

"In the period immediately after the implementation of the 2014 Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders (LASPO), court applications dropped, with family mediation becoming more popular after it was made compulsory to attend a MIAM. However, they have now returned to pre-LASPO numbers and the majority of cases now being considered in court feature litigants in person, with the burden to the taxpayer rising as a result.

"Sadly our experience shows that magistrates, judges, and court officials are bypassing the necessary process of getting the paperwork signed by a mediator at a MIAM and anecdotally we hear judges say: 'you are here now so let's get on with it.' 

"What we hear indicates lawyers are treating the current situation as they did pre-LASPO: Families are spending their money on solicitors, then being sent by those solicitors to a MIAM simply in order to tick the box that 'frees' them of any obligation to make settlements through full family mediation – which would save the families money, time and stress, whilst delivering better outcomes for their family. They then head back to the solicitor to spend still more money. Pre-LASPO, solicitors had legal aid for representation, they referred people to mediation to box tick then back again to spend more money. In effect, nothing has changed."

19th century language
Commenting further on Justice Ministers' post-implementation review of the legal aid elements of LASPO, Jane Robey added:

"What separating families need is access to justice, via simpler pathways that can be navigated more easily. This means, for example, fewer complex processes and language that is fit for the 21st century instead of the 19th. 

"This should be linked to the excellent digital work being developed by HM Courts and Tribunals Service where there is a recognition that access to justice is very much about making the legal processes people find themselves engaged with understandable, and not peppered with indecipherable legal jargon.

"We are not arguing for a return to a pre-LASPO legal aid landscape when we all know the UK's financial position is very different to how it was when the Act was introduced. We believe the focus of attention needs to be fully upon those we are trying to help, separating families, not on reinstating measures that were and would be highly expensive to the taxpayer and from which – past evidence tells us – the main beneficiaries would be the legal profession."

Ministerial dragging of feet
Jane Robey commented:

"Legal aid remains available for family mediation, but in view of the declining family mediation numbers, some mediators fear Ministers could consider removing this as part of their post-implementation review of the 2014 legal aid changes. We would welcome assurances that the government is not intending to cut still deeper; that it remains committed in principle to its long-standing support for family mediation since this enables better futures for separating families, and that Ministers will back this up in practice.
"Despite the Ministerial dragging of feet, our mediators are again on new year alert, expecting a flood of enquiries as relationships that have hung by a thread for some time finally snapped over Christmas."