Fees paid to solicitors and mediators should be increased to encourage take-up of the service, according to a report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice.
The mediation taskforce, led by Sir David Norgrove, was created following an unexpected drop by over a third in the number of publicly funded mediations following the implementation of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in April last year.
The Legal Aid Agency’s budget had allowed an extra £10m a year to be spent on mediation, taking the total to £25m. In the event, spending fell to £7m.
The report attributes the fall, in part, to lack of awareness among ‘too many people, including solicitors’ that legal aid is still available for mediation, and to the loss of the referral route from solicitors to mediators that legal aid used to provide.
The report warns that the fall in publicly funded mediations has increased financial pressure on mediation providers, with some already going out of business.
This has led to concern that there may be a lack of capacity if and when the number of mediations begins to increase, says Norgrove.
The taskforce suggests paying for all mediation information sessions, rather than only legally aided ones, for 12 months, increasing the fees paid to mediators for a fixed three-year period and increasing the settlement fee paid to solicitors from £200 to £300.
It also suggests that mediation should be exempt for the 12-month residence test for legal aid eligibility and calls on the MoJ to undertake a campaign to increase awareness and set up an interactive web presence and helpline.
Law Society president Nicholas Fluck (pictured) said: ‘Within the constraints of LASPO, the taskforce could do little to address the fundamental cause of the decline in mediation: the impact of legal aid cuts on referrals to mediators from family solicitors.'
But he said that if at least some of the recommendations - particularly the funding changes - are taken up, that can only improve a ‘dire state of affairs’.
Family lawyers’ group Resolution welcomed the report and called on the government to recognise the crucial role played by family lawyers.