Monday 18 January to Friday 22 January is family mediation week, organised by the Family Mediation Council to spread the word about the benefits of family mediation.
Mediation has an important role within civil justice, particularly within family disputes. In family law, mediation does not create an inequality of arms between parties, as is the case in some areas of law, such as housing. In family disputes, it is an opportunity to remove the animosity that can naturally arise during court proceedings and enable participants to make their own decisions based on what will work for them and their families.
Mediation is often not well understood by the family law community but it can be one of the most cost-effective and quickest ways to deal with the issues surrounding relationship breakdown. Mediation and non-court dispute resolution measures will always be most effective alongside advice from an expert family law solicitor.
Mediation, in the context of family issues, works because it is a choice: people come voluntarily to sort things out and this element of self-determination is a strength of the process. It is confidential - subject to the usual caveats regarding abuse - and it provides a private space where participants can think about how they can resolve issues.
The mediator will help participants to reach decisions by acting to keep a balance between them so that they can discuss things calmly.
In fact, judges sitting in the family courts encourage people to settle their differences away from the court and they support the use of mediation to do so. Part 3 of The Family Procedure Rules states that 'the court must consider, at every stage in proceedings, whether non-court dispute resolution is appropriate'.
I am a Law Society accredited mediator as well as a practising family solicitor and have found that the two skillsets complement each other. As a mediator, I can share my experience as an experienced family solicitor and as a solicitor, I fully understand the benefits mediation and non-court dispute resolution can offer my clients.
Since the first lockdown in March 2020, mediators have been offering their services online and the benefits experienced include a rapid response time, no travel time and associated travel costs with location being no obstacle. Mediators are now working with participants across the country and they have adapted their services and risen to the challenges of the pandemic in a flexible way.
Compare and contrast this to the inevitable backlogs now faced by the court system and it is easy to see why this form of non-court dispute resolution is an attractive choice for many separating couples, particularly since legal aid is available for family mediation.
According to the recently published Family Solutions Group Report, of the annual 280,000 children of separating parents, around one third may be turning to the family court – which could contribute a huge amount of cases to the family courts.
Mediation is appropriate in most family relationship breakdowns. Often, the situation will involve a separating couple wishing to resolve the arrangements for their children, their finances and their divorce proceedings. The creativity and flexibility of the process includes mediation participants being able to sit together with the mediator or in separate rooms during the meetings.
Solicitors can be involved in the mediation process and a suitably qualified mediator can meet with children independently of their parents if this is agreed.
Mediation often involves a single mediator, although two mediators can work together in co-mediation in cases which are particularly complex or tense.
There are many options to custom build the mediation process. For example, independent financial advisors can assist in a neutral capacity and the participants can work with a family therapist or a divorce coach.
The mediation process can be planned to make participants feel as comfortable as possible in the mediation meetings, and the mediator will provide reassurance if participants are worried about meeting with the former partner.
My experience of virtual family mediation during the pandemic has been largely positive as my client base has increased from local to countrywide - distance is no longer an object! Clients have benefitted from the swift, flexible and cost-effective response which online meetings provide in the comfort of their own environments. It has, however been a steep learning curve on the technology front!
The need to promote the benefits of family mediation has never been greater.
Elaine Richardson is co-chair of the Law Society family law committee