The government’s scheme to fund a free mediation session for separating couples will do little to increase the number of people resolving disputes out of court, lawyers have claimed.
Family justice minister Simon Hughes announced this week that a single free mediation session will be funded by the government for both parties if one of them is already legally aided.
The move seeks to strengthen the government’s strategy to encourage mediation as a cheaper and quicker alternative to court, following public funding cuts introduced last year.
So far its efforts to drive parties to mediation have failed. Since legal aid reforms removing public funding for most private law family cases were implemented in April 2013, the number of separating couples using mediation has fallen dramatically.
In the first six months following the cuts, the number of couples attending mediation sessions fell by 51%. The amount spent by the Ministry of Justice on family mediation plummeted in 2013/14. From the £24m pot set aside to fund mediation, the ministry spent only £9.4m.
Critics attribute the drop to the removal of lawyers from the process – lawyers who had previously told clients about mediation, and the government’s failure to promote the service.
The ministry has trumpeted mediation in a bid to drive parties out of the courts as the number of parties forced to represent themselves due to the funding cuts has grown.
Last year, nearly two-thirds of couples who attended a single mediation session for a child dispute reached a full agreement and almost seven out of 10 couples who used the process reached agreement, the ministry claimed.
Hughes said: ‘We know mediation works and we want more people to make use of it.’
But chair of family lawyers’ group Resolution, Jo Edwards, said that while she welcomed the announcement, it would make little difference to take-up as it is limited to cases where at least one party is eligible for legal aid.
Edwards said she hoped the measure would help some separate in a way that minimised conflict, but she did not expect it would have a significant impact on the number of couples resolving their disputes out of court.
She called on the government to allocate funding to enable separating couples to get legal advice to help them understand their situation and the options available to them, which she said are not limited to mediation.
Marc Lopatin (pictured), mediator and founder of LawyerSupportedMediation.com, also called for funds to be made available to bring lawyers back into the process.
‘Until ministers use legal aid to align gatekeeper solicitors with family mediators, separating parents will continue to clog up the courts or worse still give up the ghost entirely,’ he said. ‘Ministers have wreaked huge damage upon family mediation since cuts to legal aid and this announcement is unlikely to repair that damage.'