In March, the UK Government unveiled plans to introduce mandatory mediation for separating or divorcing couples as part of a reform to the family justice system.
The proposed changes aim to alleviate the burden on family courts, reduce backlogs, and prioritise urgent cases. While some see the move as a positive step toward more efficient dispute resolution, others share concerns surrounding the mandatory approach to the reforms.
Government’s mediation reform proposals
The government’s mediation reform plans seek to divert many family disputes away from the overwhelmed family court system. The proposals call for mandatory mediation in all suitable low-level family court cases, except those involving allegations or a history of domestic violence or child safeguarding concerns.
The objectives of these reforms are twofold: To reduce demand within the family court system, allow urgent cases to be heard promptly and shield children from the detrimental effects of witnessing their parents engage in contentious court battles.
Under the proposed plans, separating couples must attempt to reach agreements on child arrangements and financial matters through qualified mediators. This means court action would be reserved for complex cases or situations where mediation has not resulted in a resolution.
To incentivise divorcing couples to cooperate with each other, courts could impose cost orders if parties fail to make a reasonable attempt to mediate. The government’s Family Mediation Voucher Scheme, which offers financial support for mediation, will also be extended until April 2025 with an additional £15 million in funding.
Mediation is a voluntary alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process where couples collaborate with a trained and accredited mediator to find mutually acceptable solutions. It provides a constructive platform for resolving differences and minimising acrimonious conflicts.
Unlike legal advice, mediators act as intermediaries, facilitating open communication and negotiation between the parties involved. Mediation has proven beneficial in helping separating couples achieve positive outcomes while reducing the strain on the courts.
The mandatory mediation reforms have generated support and concerns within the legal community. By diverting low-level cases to mediation, the reforms aim to ease the strain on the family court system, enabling it to prioritise the most pressing matters, an outcome that would be welcomed.
However, in last week’s resolution, the campaigning body representing family justice professionals stated that they do not support Government proposals to force families into mediation.
Grant Cameron, the national chair of the resolution, said: “We believe that the needs of families would be more appropriately and better met, and demand on the family courts would be reduced by helping more former couples and parents make informed choices to find the route that gives them the best chance of reaching constructive, lasting outcomes about child arrangements and family finances on divorce.”
Gemma Davison, family lawyer at Stowe Family Law and accredited mediator, agrees.
“Mediation being voluntary is a fundamental principle of the process. People must understand the options for resolving issues to make informed decisions about what is best for them and their families in their circumstances.”
Gemma continued: “Mediation has huge benefits, not least avoiding the financial and emotional cost of attending court, but it is not an easy option, nor one that is appropriate for everyone. It should not be made mandatory to achieve a political agenda.”